Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jayshawn Augusto In The House!

I presume everybody else on the internet has already seen this kid. Maybe a bunch of times. And frankly, I hate the fact that there are unquestionably thousands of super bright young African-American intellectual whiz kids out there who will never wind up in front of a video cam because THAT doesn't make the news. But really, this kid deserves some attention anyway. His name is Jayshawn Augusto. He's eleven years old. And he just might be the Mohammed Ali of basketball. Prepare to be amazed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Am I Not a Human?

Last month, on the 27th, I was ill. So ill, I not only forgot to write my usual post on human rights, I didn't notice I had forgotten for days. And when I finally did remember, I felt so disappointed and was so far behind on everything, I didn't even try to explain my situation.

Things are still hectic, but not having an excuse this time, I'm going to highlight -- as I often do -- the criminal justice system. ColorofChange.org is again calling for action in support of making the sentencing of those convicted of drug offenses more balanced. They write:

"The so-called 'war on drugs' has created a national disaster: 1 in 15 Black adults in America are behind bars. It's not because we commit more crime but largely because of unfair sentencing rules that treat 5 grams of crack cocaine -- the kind found in poor Black communities -- the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is the kind found in White and wealthier communities.

"These sentencing laws are destroying communities across the country and have done almost nothing to reduce the level of drug use and crime. We now have an opportunity to end this disaster once and for all. A bill is moving through Congress right now that would end the sentencing disparity. It's critical that members of Congress see support from everyday folks. Join us in asking our representatives in the House and Senate to push for its passage, and please ask your friends and family to do the same. It only takes a moment. At every step in the criminal justice system, Black people are at a disadvantage -- we are more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted, but less likely to have access to good legal representation, and get out of prison on parole. While there's no denying that the presence of crack has a hugely negative impact in Black communities across the country, it's clear that the overly harsh crack sentencing laws have done more to feed the broken system than improve our communities.

"You have to be convicted of moving roughly $75,000 worth of cocaine to trigger a 5-year sentence. For crack? About $500 worth. These laws punish the lowest-level dealers, while providing a loophole that helps those running the trade escape harsh sentences.

"Recently, attention has turned to these ill-conceived policies as prisons burst at the seams with non-violent drug offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which provides sentencing guidelines for judges, has petitioned Congress numerous times to change the sentencing laws.

"Last year, we reached out to you when Senator Joe Biden -- one of the original architects of the disparity -- introduced a bill that would have finally eliminated it and ended the mandatory minimum for crack possession, while increasing funding for drug treatment programs and providing additional resources for going after major cocaine kingpins.

"His proposal stalled, but that same legislation is moving through Congress again with new support, and it looks like there's a real chance it could pass. The White House is a clear ally. President Obama has said many times that punishment for crack and powder cocaine should be the same, and Biden is now Vice President and still an ardent advocate for getting rid of the disparity.

"But there are foes of this plan. Others want to see the disparity reduced to 20-to-1 or 10-to-1, but not eliminated. As Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance has said, that 'would be like amending the Constitution's three-fifths clause to make African-Americans fourth-fifths citizens or desegregating 60 percent of public establishments instead of all of them.' Members of Congress need to hear that there is strong support for a full elimination of the disparity, and that now's the time to support such legislation."We can take this opportunity to join the Sentencing Commission and countless other advocates in calling on Congress to change this unjust law. Please join us. -- James, Gabriel, William, Dani, and the rest of the ColorOfChange team "

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

From Heroes to Disappointment

I’ve been focusing for the last few days on men that sound like heroes. Today, unfortunately, I have to write about somebody that has turned out recently to be something of a disappointment. He’s the Rev. Dr. Byron Clay, the brand new Interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the famous civil rights organization co-founded by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, among others, in New Orleans in 1957.

Clay, from a Louisiana family of recognized civil rights activists, was named to the National Board of SCLC in 1973 at the age of fifteen, which seems really odd to me somehow, no matter how anointed he appeared to be or what a go-getter he might have been. Anyway, he was named Vice President a year ago and was vaulted into the Interim President position on the 1st of February when Charles Steele, who saved the organization from bankruptcy over the past few years, stepped down.

As a dynamic, relatively young minister who’s been in the upper echelons of the SCLC leadership for more than three decades, Clay had the opportunity to take the newly stabilized organization and run with it, but he has already made a couple of decisions in his six weeks of tenure that probably ought to call into question his ethics, at least, and consequently the appropriateness of his serving further in that capacity.

The way I found out about this situation is that, as you may have read on this blog, I attended during the week-end of February 20-22 a Poverty Tour of the Mississippi Delta organized by Antoinette Harrell. Through her work gathering data on peonage (the process of keeping African-Americans locked into a pattern of abject poverty benefiting White society and which some have called “re-enslavement”), Harrell became known to Mayor Sylvester Reed of Crenshaw, Mississippi, who ultimately appealed to her for more concrete help.

Harrell threw herself immediately into the effort and on July 6th of last year, took her first U-Haul of food and clothing to the Delta. Her fervor energized the sociological student organization I advise to collect more than thirty bags of warm winter clothing to send up in December. And during the process of the collection, I first heard about Gathering of Hearts, the organization that Harrell had co-founded with Ines Soto-Palmarin, a Boston city planner who already had a cadre of others in that area who also wanted to help. The result was the Poverty Tour I mentioned above, with the Boston contingency bringing a whole truckload of clothing and other goods down, joining Harrell et al, National Public Radio journalist Donna Owens, Dr. Ron Walters of the African-American Leadership Institute, myself and a gaggle of students for a whirlwind tour that left us all limp with emotion and a renewed commitment to change.

On that tour, Harrell had arranged for Dr. Walters, herself and me to broadcast for an hour live from a van speeding over rain-soaked highways between small towns in the Delta and it was during that broadcast that the idea for Mule Train, 2009, was born. Harrell suggested it first to the listening audience, but when she handed the mic to Dr. Walters and he agreed, developing the thought still further and still on the air, I remember thinking, “Oh, my God! This is NOT how this is done! We can’t just call for something this huge without a whole bunch of previous planning.” But when Dr. Walters handed the mic to me, I heard myself laying it down just as heavily as they had. Like I said, Antoinette Harrell lights a fire in folks and when she gets rocking, nobody is immune.

She had mentioned to me that the SCLC had been invited to accompany us on that tour, but for whatever reason, they weren’t able to join us at that time. Still, I knew the conversations between Harrell and their national office had already begun. Then, when Byron Clay learned that Harrell’s film, “The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century” was being shown in Selma on March 5th during the commemoration of the famous march there in 1965, he suggested that they meet at that time.

Harrell pitches her idea to Byron Clay and the SCLC

Harrell had an agenda and she was forthright about it. She asked for their support for a Mule Train event to pick up where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign left off. She wanted to return to Marks, Mississippi -- where the original campaign had started -- and hold a public hearing with the media present to bring attention to the grave condition of the people there. She got the support she sought, though Clay and others on his side of the table wanted to add a demonstration of some type to the public hearing. Harrell didn’t care about that, she said, as long as the focus stayed on the poor people and their plight rather than the organizations leading the parade. They set the date for the event as June 19-21. A short time later, Clay communicated that SCLC was “suggesting” that the demonstration be in Jackson, the state capital, rather than the tiny town of Lambert where the public hearing would take viewers into people’s homes, giving a voice to those this whole thing is all about.

Then, on March 17th, Clay announced "his" vision for a new Poor People's Campaign to the Associated Press, somehow and inexplicably failing to mention Harrell or Gathering of Hearts in any way. Hoping to generate a crowd of 50,000 people, Clay claimed to be “organizing poor people of all colors to form the kind of beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about.” Toward that end, he went on, he and the other SCLC staff would shortly be meeting with leaders in Mississippi for a tour of the Delta region.

Harrell and Clay on Gathering of Hearts tour in Mississippi

Actually, the tour was one of Harrell’s making and occurred on March 24th, at which time she asked Clay about why he was not giving Gathering of Hearts its just recognition for the work it had already done and was doing. It was, after all, Harrell who had come up with the idea for Mule Train, 2009, in the first place. He claimed an “oversight” and said he “meant no harm” by it. But the signal had been sent.

Then, later that day in the living room of a young couple whose house I had written about after my visit in February, Interim SCLC President Byron Clay – with the cameras rolling -- committed $10,000 of SCLC money toward a new house for the couple, instructing local ministers to set up a bank account with all due speed to begin receiving the monies.

That was nearly a month ago. And despite the fact that Clay talks differently when appearing with Harrell in front of a camera, there have been no new press releases from SCLC clarifying their partnership with Gathering of Hearts and the newly opened bank account for the young couple’s housing fund is still empty. In fact, SCLC has now begun publicly claiming a learning center Harrell and Soto-Palmarin have been in the process of setting up in Lambert, Mississippi, since February, a project the SCLC has had no part in whatsoever.
And in the meantime, Harrell is continuing to try to work with the organization. She has already conducted another poverty tour for them this month in Louisiana and has several more in the planning stages. Her view is that Clay and the SCLC needs to be educated just like everybody else…or maybe, the way things are playing out, even more than everybody else. For Harrell, it’s never about ego; it’s about the people, which ironically enough, is exactly what Clay says, as well.
“I am always moved when I see people whose lives are stuck in oppressive conditions,” Clay was quoted by the AP as saying. “We are gathering leaders ... to give them an opportunity to see some of the Third World communities in America."

“[The SCLC] can never afford to degenerate to a political or civic organization,” he went on. “The SCLC has the moral track record to bring forth reconciliation. The nation is ready for the SCLC to be restored to its stalwart role.”

The question, I would suggest, given recent events is whether or not Clay is the one to be at the helm while this stalwart role is being restored. On the SCLC national website, a button invites folks to contact Clay by emailing president@sclcnational.org. Perhaps we should let him know we’re paying attention.
NOTE: The photos above were taken by Walter C. Black, Sr.

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 people 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."

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Leading Solitary Lives

Thirty-seven years ago this morning, a young White guard at the infamous Louisiana State Prison at Angola was viciously stabbed to death in a dorm hallway. Prison officials, whether they knew who actually committed the crime or not (and why should we assume they don't?), saw this as a perfect opportunity to slam dunk several Black Panther Party members and slam dunk they did.

On the word of a snitch doing life without parole for a series of brutal rapes, who bartered his testimony for special favors -- like a carton of cigarettes a week -- and then release from prison only three years after he was sentenced, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were charged with the murders, scooped up and deposited in solitary confinement, where they have remained ever since. Why Woodfox and Wallace? Because they were Black Panther Party members. In fact, they had become BPP members after being incarcerated and had just been given permission to establish the first official BPP chapter behind bars.

Consistent with Panther principles to take responsibility and the initiative to improve conditions for African-Americans by engaging them in positive processes in their own communities, Woodfox and Wallace and their brothers in the new BPP chapter took action to protect new prisoners from the horrified rape culture that had become the hub of a corrupt and criminal system that put money in a lot of pockets -- including those of administrators and guards. Spreading the idea that self-determination -- even inside a prison -- could be a realistic goal, and backing up their talk with a willingness to put their lives on the line, Woodfox and Wallace threatened everything Angola had come to represent. Organized prisoners scare the be-jezzus out of those who oppress them. So naturally, Woodfox and Wallace were an immediate target. It mattered not one iota that they could not possibly have killed Brent Miller and that there was not one shred of credible evidence that either was connected to the crime in any way. They've paid the price just the same.

When Robert King (aka Wilkerson) arrived at Angola, already convicted of one crime he didn't commit (the conviction for which was eventually overturned), he was put straight into solitary confinement -- where he remained for twenty-nine years! -- on "investigation" related to the Miller murder, despite the fact that he hadn't even arrived at the institution when the crime took place. The reason? Because he, too, had found in the Black Panther Party a cause he could believe in.

Ultimately, Woodfox, Wallace and King became known as the Angola 3 and the campaign to see them released has traversed over a period of four decades, strengthening steadily during the past ten years. It's been a long and rocky road for the three. King was released in 2001, after being forced at the last minute to plead guilty to a trumped up charge, so the prison wouldn't have to ante up for what it had done to him. And since then, he has raised sand all over the U.S. and Europe in the attempt to see his brothers freed, as well.

As you know, I have already blogged about this case over the past year, but then the sociological student organization I advise decided to throw Albert Woodfox a birthday party in February, showing the movie, "Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation" (the initials in Last Slave Plantation being the same as the ones for Louisiana State Prison).
Writing Woodfox about the party and hearing from him shortly thereafter apparently set the hook because now I've talked with Robert King and read his book, From the Bottom of the Heap (more about that later, I promise); spent an afternoon with Malik Rahim of Common Ground Relief in New Orleans, himself a Black Panther Party member with a history and a commitment to the A3 struggle; and contacted Marina Drummer, who fiercely orchestrates the effort to free Woodfox and Wallace all the way from California. Drummer sent me enough stuff to open a small Free-the-Angola-3 store. And speaking with her last evening was like having a conversation with myself. What a long and magical mystery tour life sometimes is.

I don't know exactly what my role will be in all this, other than blogging, but I'm in the process of trying to set up an account to talk with Woodfox on the telephone; I want to visit him, if possible; and I hope to see Robert King speak at my university in the fall. And, in the meantime, I'm thinking about the fact that while two innocent men have spent the past thirty-seven years in solitary confinement, a murderer went free. While Bush et al got a pass for their policies and practices involving rendition, torture, and the deaths of a million Iraqis, most of them innocent and chalked up as "collateral damage," Robert King spent twenty-nine years in the hole and Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace remain locked up and locked down -- for a crime no one any longer thinks they committed.

About a year ago, Rep. John Conyers showed up at Angola, prompting the prison officials to release Woodfox and Wallace into a dorm. Eight months later, when Woodfox' conviction was overturned, not only was Woodfox NOT released, as he should have been, but the prison authorities put both men BACK in solitary confinement in response to a "rule infraction," while the State decides whether or not to re-try Woodfox yet again. Woodfox' legal counsel requested his release on bail, at the very least, but according to the Washington Post, Burl Cain, the warden at Angola, maintains that Woodfox "is still into Black Pantherism and deserves to be locked up, whether he did anything or not."

Last time I checked, locking up U.S. citizens for their political views is against the United States Constitution. But then so much that has gone on in this country -- since its inception -- has not lived up to our stated ideals or even our laws, I doubt our brothers inside expect otherwise. Still, it's up to us to get them out of there and to make sure they know that until they are out of there, we're in there, as well.
Albert Woodfox #72148
CCR, Lower A-13
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola, LA 70712

Herman Wallace #76759
Elaine Hunt Correctional Center
Unit 5, E-Tier
PO Box 174
St Gabriel, LA 70776