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OPINION: 43 years in solitary, yet the struggle continues



By Owei Lakemfa

African-American life in the last fifty years can be signposted by seven events which bring to fore, the struggles of a people.

The first is the February 21, 1965 assassination of Malcolm X   who advocated black self-defense, economic empowerment and consciousness.

The second was African-Americans securing the right to vote following the August 16, 1965 signing into law of The Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson. They  won the right to vote, 346 years after the first black slaves were brought to the Northern American colony of Jamestown; 189 years since   American independence, and 102 years after President Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves.

The third event,  was the  October 15, 1966 establishment in Oakland, California, of the Black Panthers Party for Self-Defense by Huey .P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It radicalized  many African-Americans and taught them that they can constitutionally and legally defend themselves against state brutality and murders.

The fourth, was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr  on April 4, 1968. In contrast to Malcolm X, he had  advocated a peaceful resistance to oppression, racial discrimination  and brutality  in the American society.

The fifth incident was the  J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI declaration of Angela Yvone Davis in August 1970 as one of the 10 Most Wanted. This was in connection with the   teenage High School student, Jonathan Johnson’s armed take-over of a Marin County, California court room. It was a desperate act to free his elder brother, the revolutionary Black Panther and Soledad Brother,  George Lester Jackson.  When Davis  was arrested, President Richard Nixon who had found her guilty before trial, congratulated the FBI for apprehending “…the dangerous terrorist”  But the all-White jury found her innocent. George Jackson himself was shot dead  by prison officials on August 21, 1971.

The sixth event was the November 4, 2008 election of Barack Obama as the President of the United States; the first African-American to occupy the White House. The seventh milestone, is the February 19, 2016  release of the Black Panther, Albert Woodfox from 43 years solitary confinement; he  had been in solitary since President Obama was eleven years old.

Woodfox was serving a five-year prison term in Angola, a former plantation farm in Louisiana named after the African country from which slaves on the plantation had been brought. He was in his second year in 1972 when a prison guard,  Brent Miller was stabbed and killed.  Woodfox was charged with another prisoner, Herman Wallace for the crime.  Both men claimed they were framed up because they dared to establish a chapter of the Black Panther Party in  the prison.  

Then a bizarre dimension was added  when after the murder of Miller, a prisoner, Robert Hillary King, another Black Panther, was transferred from the New Orleans Prison and held in solitary confinement for the same crime. King said he was held in solitary for 29 years for “The murder of Brent Miller, even though I was 150 miles away, I had never met the man in my life, I didn’t know him… this is the legal system. A lot of times, a prisoner is convicted on conjecture, by implication. And this is what happened to me.”

If the three men were to be charged for the same  murder, there should have been a case of conspiracy, but King had never met nor seen his fellow defendants before until he was transferred to Angola after Miller had been killed. So they became known as the Angola Three.

Woodfox in the American  television Democracy Now! programme anchored by Amy Goodman made an  analysis why he and Herman Wallace were framed up : “The saddest thing in the world is to see a human spirit crushed. And that’s basically what happened with these young kids that were coming to Angola. And we decided that if we truly believed in what we were trying to do, then it was worth taking whatever measures necessary to try to stop this. So we formed anti-gang squads. And every day, when they would bring these young kids down, we would go and we would offer them friendship and protection. And for a while there, we were able to stop the sexual slave trade that was going on in Angola at the time… a lot of the security people there were profiting from this.”

There was a sustained national and  international campaign to free the Angola 3. Robert King was freed in 2001, he became a consistent champion to free his colleagues.  On October 1, 2013, Herman Wallace was freed and died  of cancer three days later .  With the determination by the state to frustrate his release, Woodfox made a no contest plea for lesser charges and was finally freed for years already served. It was on his  birthday. He emerged from his six-by-nine feet  Closed Call Restriction (CCR) cell with his dignity intact,  head, held high and  face, focused on the future.  He revealed that he survived by not allowing  prison to get the better of him, reading books, and having faith in the justness of his cause: “One of my inspirations was Mr. Nelson Mandela. You know, I learned from him that if a cause was noble, you could carry the weight of the world on your shoulder. Both King, I and Herman thought that standing up for the weak, protecting people who couldn’t protect themselves, was a noble cause.”

Caging a human being like a wild animal and ensuring he does not interact with other prisoners even for the  one hour daily he was allowed to step out of his prison within a prison, was intended to destroy the  mind of Woodfox.

Although he had his  conviction overturned by the courts three times he  remained an hostage of the conservative American establishment which held him and his colleagues in conditions that amount to crimes against humanity.There are still prisoners who have spent three or four decades in American prisons, including members of the defunct Black Panthers who are actually prisoners of conscience. The world needs to get them freed.


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