Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remembering Safiya Bukhari—an interview with Laura Whitehorn

Remembering Safiya Bukhari—an interview with Laura Whitehorn

By Angola 3 News

Former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn has edited the new book, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind (The Feminist Press, 2010). The War Before features the writings of the late Safiya Bukhari, who was born in New York City and joined the Black Panther Party in 1969. Imprisoned for nine years, for charges related to the Black Liberation Army, Bukhari was released in 1983 and went on to co-found the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and other organizations advocating for the release of political prisoners. She died in 2003 at the age of 53 years of age.

A preface by Wonda Jones (Bukhari’s daughter), a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, an afterword by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and an introduction by Whitehorn are also featured alongside Bukhari’s writings. Just released this month, The War Before has been reviewed by Lenore J. Daniels, Dan Berger, and Ron Jacobs. The website www.safiyabukhari.com states: “The War Before traces Bukhari’s lifelong commitment as an advocate for the rights of the oppressed. Following her journey from middle-class student to Black Panther to political prisoner, these writings provide an intimate view of a woman wrestling with the issues of her time—the troubled legacy of the Panthers, misogyny in the movement, her decision to convert to Islam, the incarceration of out spoken radicals, and the families left behind. Her account unfolds with immediacy and passion, showing how the struggles of social justice movements have paved the way for the progress of today.”


(photo: Safiya Bukhari)

Angola 3 News: When did you first meet Safiya Bukhari?

Laura Whitehorn: I met Safiya in the visiting room of the Federal Correctional Institution (for women) in Dublin, California, in 1997—but when we embraced, it felt as if I’d known her all my life. At the time, Safiya was traveling to various prisons, visiting political prisoners to talk with us about Jericho ’98, the national campaign, beginning with a march rally to the White House, that she was organizing (with Herman and Iyaluua Ferguson, political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim, and others). I was in Dublin, along with six other women political prisoners—Puerto Rican Independentistas Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez, Carmen Valentin and Dylcia Pagan, and my codefendants Marilyn Buck and Linda Evans. Another North American comrade who had been in Dublin with us, Donna Willmott, had recently been released. Safiya’s heart was so deeply involved in the cause of supporting political prisoners—and fighting for their recognition and release—that she immediately felt like an old friend with whom I’d been on the barricades, so to speak.

A3N: What can you tell our readers about who Safiya was as a person?

LW: Safiya lived her politics, exuded solidarity from every pore and in every fiber of her being. She acted on her beliefs—and she was constantly questioning, refining and developing those beliefs. When you read her book, you will see that fighting for justice was a necessity to her. Resolving the inequitable, brutal situation of Black people and other oppressed groups was her bone-deep desire. She spent every ounce of her being trying to figure out how to proceed, evaluating past actions, pushing others to revitalize dormant work and struggles. And she loved her comrades behind bars in the most revolutionary way—by refusing to let them be forgotten.

She took all political exhortations very personally, trying to apply them in practice, and trying to submit them to scrutiny and honesty, to bring them from the realm of the bullhorn to the arena of what you do when you get up every day. Safiya was not just a revolutionary during the revolutionary times of the 60s and 70s. She struggled to live as a revolutionary woman during the non-revolutionary times that followed and persist.

A3N: Can you please tell us more about the role Safiya played in the movement supporting political prisoners? What role have women in general played in this movement?

LW: Some of the answer to this question is contained in the previous answer – she worked hard, and gave leadership through her work. But more than that, Safiya applied a ruthless honesty to her own practice. She did not merely educate people about what COINTELPRO was; she spent much attention (and anguish) examining how she and others of us in the movements of the 60s and 70s had, through our own weaknesses, enabled COINTELPRO to destroy our work. She didn’t only talk about the devastation prison causes for the families of political prisoners; she felt it in her heart and expressed it by being always available to the prisoners and their families.

Safiya, along with women like Yuri Kochiyama, set the standard very high for what it means to refuse to abandon our imprisoned comrades. She led with creativity and commitment. In her writings you see the depth of what it meant for her to be a woman who led in creating support for political prisoners. She grappled constantly with how to do that, and some of the answers she found will surprise many of us who try to continue her work.

In The War Before, you will read of her attempts, over the years, to build a viable support and advocacy system for the prisoners. Safiya led (as many women do in this work—and everyone comments on how many of the people involved in supporting political prisoners are women) because she not only did the work, she also figured out what political principles underlie that work. I guess what I am trying to say is that it has often been assumed that men provided the ideological and strategic thinking, and that women lead by doing the work. But Safiya’s book shows that women did the ideological and strategic thinking as well as the work—and that, by providing a unique, flowing-both-ways combination of theory and practice, women have contributed to a more vital political framework for this and other radical work for social justice.

A3N: When did you first begin working on this book?

LW: I began working on the book four or five years ago, when Wonda Jones, Safiya’s daughter, made a very important decision: In our grief at Safiya’s way-too-early death, we should not allow her work to be lost. It was a big project, as it turned out, because Safiya didn’t spend much time (none, in fact) planning for a book—she was too busy organizing. In my introduction to The War Before I describe the process of creating the book.

A3N: How has it been received so far?

LW: So far the reception has been warm and enthusiastic, but it is a bit early to tell how far this will go. Wonda and I did the book largely in order to get Safiya’s work and thinking, and the question of political prisoners, to people who have yet to learn of the wonderful men and women from our movements who remain behind bars.

A3N: What do you think are the central messages of the book?

LW: I think there are several, and different readers may draw different ones. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who wrote the afterword, says that by reading Safiya’s words we get an infusion of strength and spirit, enabling each of us to fight more creatively for justice. Angela Davis, in her foreword, says she hopes the book will encourage readers to join the fight for freedom of political prisoners, and to fight for prison justice. I think both of those are central messages of Safiya’s writings; I think another is that the quest for justice is worth working on with all one’s might—and with honesty, lucidity and clarity, so that we can create social justice among ourselves, renewing our own humanity as individuals and as a group while we fight against the system that promotes instead capitalist, inhumane values.

A3N: What else can activists today learn from Safiya's life?

LW: We need to understand, embrace, and feel in our core beings the values we fight for—and to apply those in practice. Safiya lived as she spoke: If you say you want justice, then you can do something to achieve it. She also shows why and how the battle to win release for political prisoners is completely fundamental to achieving justice as a whole.

Safiya’s collected writings also help us to understand that the revolutionary movements of the mid-20th century do not belong in a box marked “history.” The tenets that underscored that era continue, in different forms, today. What made the period revolutionary was not just the levels of struggle in which we engaged, but the understanding we had that a fundamental change of the system of imperialism was necessary. I hope that recognizing the holistic view of political history Safiya depicts will help us agitate among Left groups throughout the U.S. to add to their programs the demand to free all political prisoners.

--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Angola 3 Film "In the Land of the Free..." – Director’s statement

An essay written by filmmaker Vadim Jean has just been released at www.AnitaRoddick.com, where Jean writes: "I believe Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are innocent. I believe their continued incarceration in solitary confinement is in violation of the 8th amendment of the United States constitution which forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ in the land of the free. I hope the film may do its small part in helping to bring attention to this injustice. But most of all I made this film for Anita. Because to be a compassionate, kind, human being who will not stand by where there is injustice, to be the kind of person that Anita was, we must ‘just do something’. And this is my something."

Read the full essay here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Visiting A Modern Day Slave Plantation--An Interview With Nancy A. Heitzeg

Visiting A Modern Day Slave Plantation

--An Interview With Nancy A. Heitzeg

By Angola 3 News

Nancy A. Heitzeg, Ph.D is a Professor of Sociology and Program Co-Director, Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity at St Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Angola 3 News: Please tell us about your recent visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola this past month.

Nancy A. Heitzeg: I was at Angola with a University-level off-campus class I was teaching on Racism in the Criminal Justice System. Students and I were in New Orleans for a week where we met with Sister Helen Prejean and did some work for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. I had been to Angola once before and both tours were comparable.

I should say that it is surprisingly simple to get a tour at Angola – just call the Museum, fill out a form and just turn up. No background checks, no IDs and no trips through metal detectors—which, of course, I have experienced at other prisons even when I was an invited speaker. You can and we did even drive our own vehicle through the grounds on the tour with a tour guide who rides along. Of course matters would be much different if one was at Angola to visit an inmate.

A3N: What happened during the tour?

NAH: The tour is quite extensive—we were there for 6 hours—and consisted of the following stops/activities:

§ Guard/employee Village: A small “town”—built by inmates of course—house about 200 employees that live and work there with their families. Kids are bused in and out of the prison gates to outside schools. The town sits in the shadow of the Warden’s new mansion atop a high hilltop—built again by inmate labor.

§ The Dog Kennels: Angola is very proud of their dog breeding and training operation, which includes Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and wolves. They are attempting to breed a more “vicious” attack dog by crossing Shepherds with the metaphoric “black wolf” they have. It is Mengelian really. Dogs are trained to track and attack unruly and escaping inmates. Some are trained to sniff drugs and contraband—some sold to law enforcement.

§ Point Look-Out: The inmate cemetery for those whose bodies are not claimed and removed by relatives after death. Angola now claims a “dignified burial” for inmates by actually giving them a coffin! A coffin made, of course, by other inmates—and a horse drawn hearse procession. The coffin-making work drew recent attention when Billy Graham’s wife Ruth was buried in one. Point Look-Out has recently been renamed—ironically—for the slain guard Brent Miller, which does not seem to bode well for Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, of the Angola 3, who were convicted of Miller’s 1972 death (note: Miller’s widow, Leontine Verrett, now questions their guilt and has called for a new investigation into the case).

§ The Horse Barn: Angola loves its horses. They have quarter horses, Percherons, some thoroughbreds and mules. Again mad breeding experiments—crossing Percherons with mules and thoroughbreds—these, of course, are for sale at auction, often to law enforcement agencies.

§ The “Red Hat”: The most chillingly evil place I have ever been. The Red Hat is a Louisiana “Historical Landmark”—it is a cement cellblock with maybe forty 8 x 8 cells. It is cold as ice regardless of the weather outside and still smells of death and suffering even though it is open to ventilation. The Red Hat was built in the 1930s and was used for disciplinary purposes and public execution. The original electric chair with its old generator and battery is there. This is the chair that failed to kill Willie Lee Francis the first time in 1947, so yes, they had to “execute” him twice. Anywhere from 6-13 inmates were thrown naked into a single cell for punishment. This facility was used until 1973! Tour guides tell the story of Charlie Frazier who murdered two guards in the cane fields and escaped. After apprehension and upon his extradition from Texas, he was put in the last cell on the left and the door and window were welded closed. He lived that way for 7 years until he became ill and died. This is supposed to be a great story of punishment and justice served.

§ The New Death House: Tours do not go in, but the new larger death house is further inside the property. There were complaints that it was too close to the gate and outer perimeter. There was an escape from the old death house in the late 1990s where 3 inmates made it out and off the prison property.

§ The Execution Chamber: Tours go right in and stand by the lethal injection table. Louisiana used the electric chair until 1991—there is still a ventilator which was used to clear the smell of burned flesh. The witness rooms are small. Louisiana does not allow an inmate’s family to witness an execution and Warden Cain edits and reads the inmate’s last words. Angola owns all of you, even this.

§ Inmate “Dormitory”: Tours walk right into and through a “typical” 90 bed dormitory as if the inmates there were invisible. A bed and a trunk for possessions is what you get. Due to state budget crunches, Angola may go to double-bunks in these dorms.

§ Lunch: For $3, tours can eat what the entire prison eats. The day I was there it was a grease soaked piece of fish, rice in bacon grease, a biscuit, 2 greasy cookies and some sugar flavored drink. Needless to say, we looked at the trays and went without.

§ Visit with the editor of The Angolite: This takes place in the Visitor Center where inmates are bused to meet their guests and where parole hearings and other legal proceedings take place. Since the release of Wilbur Rideau, Kerry Myers has been the editor and the inmate who speaks to tours. He is a white middle-class man who is serving life without parole for the 2nd Degree Murder of his wife. Myers told 2 different versions of his crime when I visited so I looked up his case which is actually infamous—the subject of a book and TV movie. Unlike most inmates who spend at least 3 months and in many cases 10 years toiling in the fields planting by hand, Myers was offered a 20 cents an hour job at The Angolite just 45 days into his incarceration there. Race and class privilege rule even here.

§ Radio Station: The “Incarceration Station” broadcasts live to all seven prison complexes at Angola. Inmate DJs play mostly gospel but it also serves as a means for communicating to all facilities during emergencies.

§ Museum/Gift Shop: Here are many lots of displays of Angola’s history—weapons, a section on the Red Hat, the “heeling” incident, and “Gruesome Gertie,” which is the last electric chair, with photos of all executed inmates since 1981—the most recent in January 2010. There is a rodeo display, a section in Angola as portrayed in films such as Dead Man Walking and Monster’s Ball, a history of escape attempts and more. Angola's reputation as "the bloodiest prison in America" is portrayed as an artifact of the past. We are led to believe that Angola is now a peaceful, humane institution where religion has ushered in a new era of calm, but the inmate who works as a janitor and likes to talk will tell you different. Warden Cain may run a less overtly brutal regime than previous wardens, but much repression is now just more hidden from public view. Warden Cain is quite adept at public relations. Of course you can buy Cain’s book at the gift shop and lots of junk with his name all over it, including small bales of cotton.

A3N: How much do you think things have changed since Angola was infamously labeled “the bloodiest prison in America?

NAH: The tours are apparently part of Warden Burl Cain’s efforts to make Angola seem more humane, safe and open, in an effort to undo the image of Angola as “the bloodiest prison in America.” On the surface, I suppose what visitors see on the tour could reinforce that notion because there is regular interaction with inmate trustees, trips into inmate “dormitories” and never any sense of danger or risk. Of course, there is a great emphasis on the role of religion. For example, there is the new Graham Foundation Chapel, KLSP Incarceration Station that plays mostly gospel and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary program. All of this emphasizes conservative evangelical Christianity over other faith traditions. Religion is clearly seen and used at Angola as a source of social control. Warden Cain has said that “the only true rehabilitation is moral.”

But many questions remain about what is unseen or unspoken unless you directly ask. Inmates still try to escape and as many as 1200 inmates—about 20% of the total population of over 5100—are in administrative segregation/lock-down at the notorious Camp J. These inmates are granted their one hour of “exercise” in an incredibly small dog kennel-like cage and are forced to remain handcuffed during their brief time out (this is apparently the response to inmates “flashing” female guards in the tower). An array of deadly weapons is still confiscated weekly, and there is reportedly on-going use of dogs and other force to control the population. Sexual assault is also reportedly still an issue and the obituary column in The Angolite often refers to deaths of relatively young inmates in Camp J without noting cause of death, as it does in other obituaries.

If allowed to, inmates also offer a critique of The World Famous Angola Rodeo, where inmates participate for cash prizes at great risk. There have been several inmate deaths at the rodeo as well as extreme injuries and on-going chronic conditions. Inmates are allowed to sell crafts at the rodeo but the Warden/prison takes a 20% cut. The rodeo makes approximately $1 million each weekend in October as the new arena (built by inmates in short order under Cain’s directive) seats 10,000. This is just one of several money-making endeavors at Angola that depends on neo-slave inmate labor starting at 2 cents per hour—the minimum wage had been raised to 4 cents per hour but was recently returned to 2 cents, according to the tour guide. The highest available wage for a few rare jobs is 20 cents per hour.

Despite the supposedly benign tour, both students and I were horrified. There is a cavalier attitude, a blasé’ acceptance of capital punishment, mass incarceration and of course little critique of the class and race dynamics of the inmate population—80% of whom are black and nearly all of whom were poor, under-educated and dependent on a public defender at trial. There is passive acceptance and even sometimes celebration of Louisiana’s harsh sentences—it has the highest incarceration rate in the US—and of the fact that 90% of the inmates will die there and 80% will receive no visitors after 5 years.

Angola is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s description of the plantation “Sweet Home” in her novel Beloved—a physically beautiful and natural space that is the site of great hidden suffering and degradation. It is a place where men are made to be docile “yes sir” and “yes ma’m” boys—where only the compliant and subservient are slightly rewarded, but are still disappeared, invisible and inconsequential to those inside and outside the gates. Yes, you can survive and maybe work a tolerable job there after decades of submission--but at what cost? And, what of the rest who resist?

Those who want to learn more should watch the films --The Farm and The Farm: 10 Years Down. A word of caution though: while much is revealed, they do, in my estimation, especially in the second film, over-estimate an inmate’s chances of leaving Angola and “success” of the moralistic program imposed by Warden Cain. The stories of George Crawford and Vincent Simmons are much more typical than those of Ashanti Witherspoon and Bishop Tannehill.

A3N: Many people call Angola Prison a "modern day slave plantation." Do you think this is a fair label?

NAH: Absolutely. Angola was and is still is very much a plantation. At 18,000 acres, it is the largest prison in the US—the only prison with its own zip code. Mostly black men are still maintaining the same agricultural activity—planting, hoeing, picking cotton and other crops by hand—that slaves did originally. And they are doing so as captives who are compensated for their back-breaking labor with mere pennies per hour. While Warden Cain may not be Simon Legree, he is still a plantation master—albeit one who uses Christianity as a means of controlling the neo-slave labor under his watch. The very same practices and social control mechanism that existed under slavery persist—just under a new name.

My interest in Angola is as both a paradigm of the Southern transformation of plantations into prisons and as a prototype for what we now call the prison industrial complex. Many old plantations in the South became prisons after the Civil War. Angela Y. Davis traces the initial rise of the penitentiary system to the abolition of slavery, writing: “in the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for the newly released slaves.”

Slave Codes became Black Codes and criminalized a range of activities if the perpetrator was black. The newly acquired 15th Amendment right to vote was curtailed by tailoring of felony disenfranchisement laws to include crimes that were supposedly more frequently committed by blacks. And, the liberatory promise of the 13th Amendment – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States”- contained a dangerous loophole- “except as a punishment for crime”. This allowed for the conversion of the old plantations to penitentiaries, and this, with the introduction of the convict lease system, permitted the South to continue to economically benefit from the unpaid labor of blacks.

The patterns established in the old south have proliferated and expanded throughout the US, as African Americans are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised and imprisoned in the prison industrial complex. There has been a corresponding shift from de jure racism codified explicitly into the law and to a de facto racism where people of color, especially African Americans, are subject to unequal protection of the laws, excessive surveillance, extreme segregation and neo-slave labor via incarceration—all in the name of “crime control”. It is the current manifestation of the legal legacy of the racialized transformations of plantations into prisons, of Slave Codes into Black Codes, of lynching into state-sponsored executions. The “imputation of crime to color” that Frederick Douglass warned of 125 years ago continues to the present.

--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Angola 3 Film Showing at Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival London

We are pleased to announce that the documentary about the Angola 3 titled ‘In The Land Of The Free…’ is going to be shown at:

This Year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Thursday 11th February at 08.00am at Metro 4 Theatre III
Saturday 13th February at 1.30pm at Metro 4 Theatre III
Sunday 14th February at 10.30am at Metro 4 Theatre III

To find out more and buy tickets please visit the Santa Barbara International Film Festival website.

This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London.

Wednesday 24th March at 7.00pm at The Ritzy, Brixton Oval, London
Thursday 25th March at 6.30pm at Curzon Soho, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London

To find out more please visit the Human Rights Watch Film Festival website. And why not sign up for the latest news at In The Land Of The Free website.

We hope to bring you the details of more screenings in due course.

In The Land Of The Free…

In The Land Of The Free tells the shocking and unbelievable story of Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, three black men from rural Louisiana who were held in solitary confinement in the biggest prison in the U.S., an 18,000-acre former slave plantation known as Angola. Woodfox and Wallace, founding members of the first prison chapter of the Black Panther Party, worked along with King to speak out against the inhumane treatment and racial segregation in the prison. King was released in 2001 after almost thirty years of solitary confinement. Woodfox and Wallace, convicted in the highly contested stabbing death of white prison guard Brent Miller, remain in Angola where they have spent more than thirty-six years in solitary confinement. Made aware of their plight, Congressman John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, visited Wallace and Woodfox in prison in March 2008. This documentary tells the ongoing story of the case of these three extraordinary men.