Seven years ago I got a letter from a man named Herman Wallace, from a Louisiana State prison in Angola. Angola, an ex-slave plantation, once called “the bloodiest prison in the South,” with a history of chain gangs and forced labor, a breeding ground for corruption and abuse. When I got the letter, Herman had been in a 6×9 cell, 23 hours a day for well over 30 years. He and two other men, Albert Woodfox and Robert King (the Angola 3) had been put in jail as young black men for minor crimes, and when they began organizing for better conditions in the prison, they were accused of murdering a prison guard and thrown into solitary confinement. The ensuing years in multiple courts have shown an overwhelming amount of evidence that these men are innocent. While Robert King was released in 2001, Albert and Herman have remained in the prison system, in solitary confinement to this day.
At the time of their incarceration, inhumane prison conditions were being revealed to the public and there was a movement to organize and change these conditions, The Angola 3 were punished for practicing what some Louisiana prison officials called “black pantherism.” As Herman wrote to me in his letter, “Normally I would had long ago been released based on discovery of wrong doing by the government. This was not the just prosecutory misconduct, my case fell under a systemic conspiracy to lynch both Albert and I for what J.E. Hoover coined ‘The prevention of the rise of a Black Messiah.'”
All Herman asked of me was to tell the story of the Angola 3, the simplicity, inhumanity and starkness of which is haunts me. Any person, let alone an innocent one suffering in solitary confinement for 40 years, is just paralyzing. There are no gray areas in the case of the Angola 3, this is clearly an abuse of human rights, but the historical context of it is so mind-blowing that it’s hard to write about.
So, 7 years later, I’m reading a book by Michelle Alexander, called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and I start thinking about Herman and his letter and the threads of history that have woven the tapestry of racism in America. Michelle’s book is brilliant, it’s compassionate, and it’s disturbing in its revelations. We’re so conditioned to see black men as potential criminals, that we don’t even understand our own racism anymore. The plight of the black man is something that people just don’t want to touch, but suddenly the idea of “context” has been brought to the fore with the trial of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The nation is talking, but are we really connecting the dots? Do we have the humility to confront the legacy, the history, the present day reality of our racism? It’s the New Jim Crow all over again… really look at this, this was a kid, a 16 year-old black boy, shot and killed by an adult, a white adult who is now protected by a law, a thoroughly American frontier concept called “stand your ground.”
How is this all tied together…well let’s see… the “War on Drugs” was declared in America about 40 years ago, around the same time that 3 young black men were thrown into solitary for fear of strong folks of color organizing in their communities. And we see over time, that this “War on Drugs” has created more crime, the dismantling of community and debilitating poverty, a boom in prisons-for-profit, and led to more black men in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850. Of course, a white man is not going to be convicted for killing a black kid in a hoodie, even if he is just eating skittles and drinking tea – we see this kid and all we see is a future criminal-we aren’t color blind, the New Jim Crow is alive and kicking.
So, here’s a song for Herman, Albert, Robert, and Trayvon, and all the others.