Friday, June 19, 2015

Albert Woodfox: The Beat Goes On...

One of my students told me they saw this photo of Albert Woodfox and me on MSNBC last week while all the court news was breaking. I responded that I can't imagine anyone I'd rather appear on national television with than Albert Woodfox. The photo was actually taken in August of 2012, when -- for no reason we could come up with -- the Powers-That-Be suddenly decided we could have some pictures taken.

It hadn't been allowed before, even though others in the same visiting room were having them taken. And when I came back for my next visit, the "rule" had been changed again to not allow it. But on this particular weekend, acting like it was no big deal, they gave us the go-ahead and we jumped out there to grab the opportunity, never knowing until last week, it would put us together on prime time news.

He's at a different institution now, as you know if you've been reading my posts lately. And there will definitely not be any photos taken there until he comes out the door. We're three years older -- sigh -- and a little the worse for wear, but still comrades and still visiting and still glad to see each other when that's possible.

Last week, I wrote a post about what I hoped against hope would be our last visit before his being released after 43 years in solitary confinement. But the Appellate Court had other ideas. So I drove back up to the jail again Wednesday to spend another hour talking to him through a mesh grill.

I had driven up on Friday, anxiously hoping to walk him off the property. By the time I got to the jail, however, the announcement had been made that he not only wouldn't be leaving, but that he might not see freedom for another couple of years. Which is a long, long time at his age and in his medical condition. I was devastated. And I knew he was, too. He has always made it a practice not to hope because it's so painful. Once, he even told me that he has given up pretty much anything he really likes (such as a certain flavor of ice cream, for example), just so they can't torment him by withholding it. It's how he has survived.

But this time, after Federal Judge James Brady's miraculous decision dated June 8th, he allowed himself to dream. And I didn't help. We excitedly chortled and talked last week, as if it was a done deal. So it was rather like free-falling onto our heads from the moon when Friday's decision came down.

The worst of it was not being able to talk with him. He wasn't talking to anyone, as far as I could tell. And Wednesday is the only visiting day, so if he didn't call people, there was nothing we could do.

Finally, on Wednesday, another supporter who's on his list visited in the morning and I showed up at one o'clock, not sure what I'd find. I knew he'd put a brave face on it because that's what he always does, pretending he's fine so his supporters don't get discouraged and walk away. But by now, I know ways to get around that, so he sometimes shares a bit of his inner struggle with me.

We looked at each other through the dim glass and grinned like, "Well...whattya gonna do?" But after greetings, when I gave him a hard look and asked him how he was feeling, he changed the subject. We were about half way through our hour when he dropped his head a little to the right, looked at me like he was admitting a secret and said quietly, "You know, I let myself make a list this time."

I waited for him to explain.

"I never let myself make a list before of what I would do if I got out. This time I did. I made a list," he emphasized. "I had never been that close to freedom before." He shook his head as if he should have known better and went on.

"Carine [Williams, one of Albert's lawyers] was with me waiting for the decision to be announced, but when she went to the window and saw a news car driving away, I knew what had happened. They wouldn't have been leaving if they thought I was coming out."

He paused, deciding what to tell me and what not to, and then continued.

"When I went back to my cell, I just sat there thinking, what's it going to take? My conviction has been overturned twice. I have supporters all over the world -- Amnesty International, the United Nations, and all this mail coming every day. Brady issues this decision ordering my immediate release and a ban on a re-trial. I have a civil case about to be heard. I have great lawyers who are fighting for me. I've sat in solitary confinement for 43 years. And it's still not enough. What's it going to take to get me outta here?!?"

He wouldn't go so far as to admit he had felt emotions, but after saying this he looked me in the eye, as if to tell me I should read between the lines.

"The next day, I was angry," was all he said about that, but the way he said the word "angry," it was clear that he had burnt with rage and I imagined the guards trying to stay away from him that day while he worked through his fury in whatever ways he could.

"But in the end," he finished, "they might knock both my knees out from under me," -- he said the words slowly and with great emphasis -- "but they will never. break. me."

His eyes turned to steel as they held mine long enough to impress on me his commitment to survive.

We talked about the young Black organizers who are trying to craft a strategy to fight the latest manifestations of White Supremacy on the street. We talked about the campaign to free him. I promised to send him copies of some of my recent blog posts. And then he returned to the legal case.

He remains more optimistic than he's been in the past. So it's clear that he believes now that he could be free some day. I'm not so sure he would allow himself that in the past. The problem, of course -- and he knows it -- is that he might not reach that goal. Still, there's no way I would rain on his parade. Various aspects of the case are moving forward in several courts. The lawyers are excellent and committed. Albert's supporters are going nowhere without him. And, as Emily Dickenson, a woman who spent most of her life shut up in a bedroom alone, once wrote: "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all."

Strategy, backbone, and vision are a powerful combination. Maybe hope is just making the choice to believe that we'll all live to see them work for Albert Woodfox one day.

UPDATE: A 3-judge panel will hear oral arguments in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on September 2nd. Their decision on whether to uphold or reverse the lower court's ruling could come within a matter of months after that. The public is invited.

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