Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Mountain Comes to Muhammad

Yesterday, I spent the day with Albert "Shaka""Cinque" Woodfox, one of the Angola 3. It took me two hours for one reason or another to make the journey from my front door to the front reception desk at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola where he's been in solitary confinement for thirty-seven years. It wasn’t supposed to take that long, but half of the trip was on a country two-lane road and the construction and farming vehicles were out in force.

I was deep, deep in the prison abolition movement in this country in the early 1970's and I’ve been inside more than a few prisons during that time and since. But it never gets easy. I listened to an audio book -- a detective thriller -- while I drove because otherwise I would have made the entire trip with my stomach full of butterflies and my back teeth clenched and I didn’t want to throw away so frivolously the energy I would need to last the day. We’ve been writing and talking on the telephone for four months now, since I wrote to tell him that the student sociology club I advise threw him a birthday party when he turned 62 on February 19th.

It was a small gesture. We showed “The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation” and ate a cake that read “Happy birthday, Cinque.” That’s the name he took for himself along the way after his comrades had already taken to calling him Shaka. I'd seen him called Cinque on the internet and that’s what his long-time supporters in New York City called him, too, when I met with them, but he signed his letters Shaka. So I wrote and asked him -- with some trepidation, I’ll admit now -- “Albert/Shaka/Cinque, just how many of you are there in that cell?” And he laughed and I was glad because I wanted him to be rational. I couldn’t believe that he would be, but I wanted it.

I became aware of the Angola 3 more than a year ago when Color of Change sent out a call for support because the Louisiana House Judiciary Committee was talking about reviewing the case. I jumped on the bandwagon: blogging, signing petitions, contacting the governor’s office -- the standard drill. Then, in July, Shaka's conviction was overturned. I posted a YouTube video of Richie Havens at Woodstock singing about Freedom. But he wasn’t released. And in October, another hearing didn’t release him either. And the state says it will appeal the Court’s decision anyway regardless. And Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell says he'll handle the case personally because Shaka's the most dangerous man in the world. And Amnesty International says that Shaka and Herman Wallace may have done more time in solitary confinement than anyone ever.

So we asked for a special visit and rather unexpectedly got permission. I hadn’t bothered to prepare myself emotionally for this possibility because I didn’t believe it would be allowed to happen. Even after it was approved, I didn’t believe it would happen. And all the way up there, I still did not believe I was actually going to see him. Back in the day, I sometimes drove four or five hundred miles only to have a visit be denied at the last minute, so I had no illusions. I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t happen because he's him or because I’m me, but I wasn’t even excited because I didn’t want the crash at the gate when they gave me the word. I ate half of a muffin I had brought and drank most of a bottle of water on the last leg of the trip so my blood sugar wouldn’t dip and add to the likelihood of my losing my cool when they gave me the news.

They let me park without problem. Even that surprised me, I was so convinced that this was all a cruel joke. I went into the reception area, feeling new-girl-conspicuous, and after being instructed to stand in a booth that blew my hair around, I stumbled through the process at the counter. They asked for Shaka's prison number, which I guessed wrong and then right, receiving a broad grin from the woman behind the desk, as if I had just scored well on a pop quiz, the reward for which would be a visit with the matching prisoner. Then, without comment, she handed me a form reading “special visit -- non-contact,” and I was patted down, divested of my lip gloss, sent through a metal detector, and escorted across the street to the close custody building.

Waiting in the office to be further processed and taken upstairs, I watched an African-American woman officer eating watermelon while a boom box blared, “God’s got somebody for you!” The officer didn’t seem to be listening to the program, so I gathered it was like really loud background music, but I couldn’t help noticing that lying next to the boom box was a magazine wrapped in plastic, featuring a Black woman on the cover grinning back over her shoulder while her scantily clad derriere glistened with sweat. I tried not to look over-attentive, but honestly, it was a pretty surreal scene.

Guards came and went, bantering lightly with each other. And eventually I was taken upstairs and deposited in a cheerless room with seven cubicle spaces in front of seven thick screens and there was only one folding chair anywhere to be seen. I claimed it immediately, though ultimately I left at the end of the day, priding myself on having not sat in it for even one minute. Each cubicle had a stainless steel shelf on either side of the screen. I assume this was to rest your elbows or your food on while you were visiting, but it was obvious that sitting in the chair would put the shelf at approximately chin height, leaving the visit to be conducted between two talking heads. So Shaka and I either stood or perched on the steel shelves, barely inches apart despite the best efforts of the Powers-That-Be.

It was a good thirty to forty minutes between the time I pulled up in the parking lot and the moment Shaka entered the tiny room on the other side of the screen. He came through the door in hand cuffs and leg irons and after the cuffs (only) were removed and the door behind him closed soundly, he grinned and slapped his palms flat against the metal mesh and I responded by matching his palms with my own. And it was on.

Five hours and forty minutes later, the guard opened the door on my side of the room and said simply, “All right, ma’am. That’s it.” And after replacing our palms on the screen once more, we turned and walked away without looking back. And the visit was behind us. I had just met a bona fide hero, a man who shakes his head woefully over the responsibility that accompanies receiving twenty-five letters a day, a man who buys other prisoners underwear or shower shoes when they no longer have resources or connections to do so themselves, a man who teaches other men to read through the bars of his six by eight foot cell while rivulets of sweat run down his face onto the letter he’s trying to answer, the most dangerous man in the world.

I know that the “bona fide hero” line is going to make him wince. He's probably as humble as anyone I’ve ever met. “I don’t see myself as others see me,” he says. And I’m sure not. Nevertheless, the letters remind him daily how he appears to the rest of the world. They reach out to him in respect and love, feeding his spirit, holding up a mirror in front of a man who has done thirty-seven years in solitary confinement for being a Black Panther, populating the universe he has created in the iron house he calls home.

He works out six days a week, lives on French fries (not a great idea for a man on heavy-duty medications for hypertension), and prefers to wear sweatshirts when he's out of his cell. He speaks with the richest Black Louisiana accent I’ve heard yet in the two years since I moved here. And his conversations move easily from describing how the GOP should have handled Sarah Palin to advising on the best way to deal with being deposed by a lawyer to discussing a Sister Souljah book with the skill of a trained reviewer. He is equally adept at sharing deeply reflective personal insights or snapping unpredicted jokes. And his class analysis is absolutely elegant. He marveled at our spirited dialogue -- between a prisoner and a professor -- but I assured him that he was driving the conversation; I was hanging on for dear life just to keep up.

When I once asked him how he's maintained his sanity, he replied simply, "It is what it is." And that's what being rooted in stone cold reality looks like. That's what willingness to keep hoping looks like when there's been absolute proof that there is no reason to hope. That's why Albert "Shaka" "Cinque" Woodfox and Herman "Hooks" Wallace have visitors from all over the world and endless letters and telephone calls, why the world has beaten a path to their cells, why I spent the day at the Louisiana State Prison yesterday, and why Shaka and Hooks will come out of the hell holes in which they are presently trapped to walk as free men on the face of the Earth that has sustained them in their most desperate hours.

I wrote Shaka at one point that the reason the Attorney General called him the most dangerous man in the world is that if Shaka had adequately communicated at any point that he was ready to disavow Black self-determination and accept White Supremacy as appropriate and reasonable, he would have been released. But he did not. Consequently, he -- and Wallace -- have, for all practical purposes, made a daily decision to do thirty-seven years in solitary confinement voluntarily. That gives them the power and this frightens the be-jeezus out of White men like Attorney General Caldwell and Warden Cain, who still believe that there is only one kind of power -- brute force. Scared or not scared, however, Caldwell and Cain have already lost the battle because they are recognized far and wide as the misguided monsters they are and they will carry the knowledge and the repercussions of the evil they are perpetrating even as I write to their woebegotten, isolated graves.
For more information on the case, you might want to check out National Public Radio's series, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.


Robert Gartner said...

Thank you for this lovely story. Albert and Hermann are my heroes too!

changeseeker said...

Thanks for dropping by, Robert. I'll make sure Shaka and Hooks get to see all the comments to this post.

Peggy Plews said...

What an awesome post - what a great blog. What amazing men - not the most "dangerous", but certainly pretty powerful to have the Louisiana prosecutor so shaken by their fortitude, will and wisdom that they would lock them away so deep for so long. When will they learn that you can't hide the Truth forever?

Peace all.

changeseeker said...

Thanks for the kind words, Peggy. Welcome to my house and please feel free to drop by anytime. And speaking of great blogs, I just visited yours and added it to my blog roll. I bet we could have a reeeeeeally long conversation...

As for your question about when they'll learn you can't hide the Truth forever, I suspect they no longer know there IS Truth or that they're hiding it. They have gone insane, proceeding with their lives doing the kinds of things that only insane people do and quite oblivious of what will grow from the seeds they plant.