Saturday, April 18, 2009

From the Bottom of the Heap

Yesterday, I mentioned the book I just finished reading, From the Bottom of the Heap by Robert Hillary King, promising to re-visit the subject. Rather than just talk about it, though, I'll simply say that this book is the autobiography of a life nearly half of which has been lived behind bars and worse, in a tiny cell alone. Nevertheless, the bulk of the book covers the years before King became a Black Panther and, therefore, an enemy of the State (according to Those with the Power to Define). It is a fine read that outlines in rich detail the realities of growing up poor and Black in the United States. I couldn't put it down. But it isn't just a well told story. It is also a hard learned and beautifully written treatise. And here are several sections I think are crucial points King makes:

"Due to years of suffering, privation, and other hardships, a sophistication -- commonly called, 'knowing the game' -- has developed among subjects in America. This is nature's way of balancing, her way of making it up to those downtrodden individuals.

"While all subjects ('subject' is here used interchangeably with African-American, but in a broader sense, it can refer to all people who are victimized by the system) aren't exactly players, all, beyond doubt, are aware of the game. The most aware are the most dispossessed, the lumpen, the so-called 'criminal element.' The lumpen subject, by decree of the powers-that-be, is cut off from the economic security enjoyed by others and must therefore put his or her knowledge of the game into full play just to survive. With cunning, developed over a long period of having to struggle, he/she must extend and stretch himself/herself beyond acceptable boundaries. To him/her there is a justifiable self-respect -- even a challenge -- found in playing out of bounds, pitting his or her wits against the system, getting over wherever, whenever and however he/she can..."

"Contrary to what the power structure would have us believe, the Black Panther Party's ideology was not cut from the block of gangsterism. Rather, its ideology defined the overall Black experience in America -- past and present -- and provided Blacks and other oppressed peoples in America with alternative ways of resisting American-style repression politically, economically, racially and/or socially -- by any means necessary -- as advocated by one of the Party's benefactors, Malcolm X.

"The Party recognized the myth of democracy, particularly where Blacks were concerned, and set itself up from among the individuals downtrodden by the system. The goal was always for the people to be their own vanguard. It boasted a sound political objective. Its main points were: We want freedom! We want justice! Land, Bread, Education, Housing. An end to police brutality and occupation of the Black communities..."

"Solitary confinement is terrifying, especially if you are innocent of the charges that put you there. It evokes a lot of emotion. For me, being in prison in solitary confinement was terrible; it was a nightmare. My soul still cries from all that I witnessed and endured. It mourns continuously. Through the course of my confinement, I saw men so desperate that they ripped prison doors apart, and both starved and mutilated themselves. It takes every scrap of humanity to stay focused and sane in that environment. I should be anything but what I am today; sometimes the spirit is stonger than the circumstances.

"At some point, we are going to have to call prison exactly what it is: a perpetuation of slavery. The 13th amendment did not abolish slavery. It reconstituted slavery instead, by putting it on another plane, the prison plane. The 13th amendment says 'neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist on these shores except for persons duly convicted of a crime.' But how many have been legally convicted of a crime even though they were innocent? At one point, I mistakenly believed that legality and morality were synonymous, that everything judged legal was also wholly and morally correct. Through hard experience, I learned that this is not true.

"The Black Panther Party's slogan 'power to the people' centered around the concept that power actually does belong to the people. But the people have relinquished that power to a small faction of people called politicians, and in relinquishing power they have left themselves at the mercy of ever-changing restrictions defined as laws. Many of these laws deemed legal are in no way moral. In reality, we are empowered en masse to direct or redirect our own course. In redirecting our own course, one of the main focuses must be the prison system and how it is connected to slavery.

"So let's call prisons exactly what they are: an extenuation of slavery. And we must let the politicans know that we know this. Mumia Abu-Jamal is in prison because slavery was never abolished. Jalil Alamin, formerly Rap Brown; the San Francisco 8; the remaining two of The Angola 3, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox; Leonard Peltier; the Jena 6...we could go on naming people, all political victims of a legal system that is in fact immoral. It is a system like this that allows a district attorney, Read Walters, to say to Jena youth Mychael Bell with impunity that 'with a stroke of a pen, I can take your life away.' It is a system like this that gives district attorneys, defense lawyers, judges, legislators, politicians a vested interest in passing the laws, regulations, decisions and judgments that keep people in prison. Justice cannot exist when the people charged with defending the rights of people are invested in their incarceration.

"During my twenty-nine years of solitary (and the two prior years in parish prison), I lived out the conclusion that the Black Panther Party's assessment of America, as it related to Blacks and other minorities, was correct. Without the Party's appraisal, and my total acceptance of this appraisal, I could not have survived intact those twenty-nine years. I had been given a truth to live by, a truth to cling to. And despite the internal friction among the Party's leaders and cadres (orchestrated by the FBI and CIA), and in spite of the eventual elimination of the Party as an organization by these same forces, this truth has sustained me. I made a vow to myself that no matter what, I would do my best to live out this truth, even in solitary confinement. I told myself that no matter where one resided in America --whether in minimum (society) custody or maximum security (prison) custody -- the struggle must continue..."

"Again I'll say that legality and morality are opposites in this country. And contrary to what people may believe, the deeper discussion at this time should not just be about the immorality inherent in the American legal system, but rather about the people relinquishing their power. We the peole are our own greatest resource. We, not elected officials, are empowered en masse to redirect our own course. And in redirecting our course, one of our main focuses has to be the prison system and how it is linked to the slavery of old."

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