I had the honor to drive Robert King around Southern California this past weekend to a handful of events centered on the Angola 3 campaign and his new book From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of ex Black Panther Robert Hillary King.
It’s an incredible story of what it means to be Black in this country; beautifully written and deep and it made me cry at two different points. And never fear, it has an inspiring ending.
I learned that I actually eat more than King, I wake up MUCH later, and that there were possibly a few too many things edited out of the book (which I take responsibility for, though all complaints should be sent to my colleague ramsey). And a lot of really great stories that should have been in there but somehow never made it. Like the exact plan of how he escaped from Angola, and climbed walls using rope made out of the ticking from the mattresses and stepped on someone’s face and heard one of the women yell hey Tarzan, take me, it’s Jane…Which is why you have to hear him speak. But we were there to educate, not just tell stories, so I’ll be serious for a moment.
Slavery has continued in this country under the guise of prisons. There are now approximately 2.3 million people in prison, another 5 to 6 million people are on some kind of parole or probation, and 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 21 and 29 are incarcerated…
And there is a vast amount of money to be made on prisoners. The prisons get money for housing and feeding prisoners, and money for transporting them. They get money for the work that prisoners do while in prison. Prisons form the entire economic base and are the principal employer in many a small town. In Angola, Louisiana the 5,000 prisoners are counted in the town census as citizens allowing the town to receive additional federal benefits. Angola is 18,000 acres that went from plantation to prison with no break in between, even maintaining the sugar cane and cotton fields. Prisoners are guaranteed no rights in the constitution that supposedly abolished slavery. Here is a view of the place from the book:
So Robert Hillary King. He joined the Black Panther party in a Louisiana prison and worked to organize prisoners to protest the terror of the conditions they lived in. He, along with compañeros Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were actually succeeding in some things, like getting holes cut in the cell bars so that their food no longer had to scrape along the bottom of their doors when it was shoved underneath. They held classes in literacy and political education. They protested and worked to end the physical and mental abuse of prisoners, the constant invasive strip searches, and the prevalence of rape. They were reaching out to white prisoners. And so they were stopped.
King was framed in the murder of another inmate on his tier, found guilty though the man who had killed testified it had been in self-defense and that he had acted alone. Albert and Herman were framed in the murder of a prison guard (based on the testimony of seven eye witnesses – each of whom claimed they were the only ones at the scene besides the murderers! One of whom was shortly released on furlough due to his blindness. All of whom received incredible treatment from that day on, in spite of testimony that was hopelessly contradictory). King, although he was not in Angola at the time, was put under investigation as an accomplice, and was held in solitary for 29 years on that ground.
King fought his case over the years, and walked free in 2001. He said that he might be free of Angola, but Angola would never be free of him. He has kept that promise. Herman and Albert continue in prison, though Albert’s conviction has been overturned. The State has appealed the decision, and are resorting to character assassination in their attempt to ensure that both Herman and Albert remain safe and sound behind bars until they die.
So we started with an event sponsored by the Southern California Library at the L.A. Grand Theatre, a showing of the documentary on the Angola 3 (could use a bit more editing but is really a great documentary) with King speaking after. We had dinner with Gary Phillips and Gilda Haas (both future PM authors), then drove down to Whittier to stay with the Cambrons. It was a weekend of brilliant people and great hospitality I have to say! Then on Saturday we drove down to San Diego, where we stayed with Dennis Childs and his wife Saranella, both of them beautiful in every sense of the word. That day’s event was at the Malcolm X library, and the following day at UCSD. Here he is at the Library:
And here are King and Dennis at UCSD:
And of course, we were traveling in style in the rented red mustang, here are King, Saranella and I, it has been extraordinarily hot here as you can see:
A brilliantly intense weekend, though I’ll admit my thoughts had a certain tendency to stretch somewhere rather different in a smiley day-dreamy sort of way. And it was an exhausting though rewarding trip, so happy reverie came as some relief in the rare downtime. I don’t think that’s why I did my best to make King miss his flight up to the Bay by jumping on the 605 North rather than South in rush hour traffic after a last lovely night in Whittier, it’s the fact I’ve yet to try my bike on the freeways I believe! Or that I don’t know Whittier. Or that I forgot to clarify the direction with Arturo before leaving. But everything worked out all right in the end…
There is much to be done on the campaign to free the remaining two of the Angola three. For more information on how to get involved, go to www.angola3grassroots.org, and for the book or dvd, click on the images above or go to www.pmpress.org.