31 May 2019

Louisiana Black Panther

Albert Woodfox Chronicles Prison Hell

Earlier this year, Grove Press released the memoir of Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement; My Story of Transformation and Hope. The book is a testament to incredible courage and tenacity in the face of brutal physical and psychological punishment and illuminates the hideous, racist reality of the capitalist injustice system in this society based on the exploitation of labor and founded on chattel slavery. Solitary tells the story of the Angola 3 (Woodfox and his comrades Robert King and Herman Wallace), who collectively spent over a century in the torture of solitary confinement—mostly at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. While there, the three formed a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). The decades that the Angola 3 were locked away in solitary were retribution for their joining the BPP and organizing protests and legal challenges against unspeakable prison conditions.

Solitary depicts the harsh reality of black life in America—on both sides of the prison bars. As Woodfox recalls of his coming of age in a New Orleans ghetto: “We always knew the police picked up the men in our neighborhood because they were black and for no other reason.” Woodfox graphically describes the all too common grinding poverty and racism that drove his mother to prostitution, and himself to fall into the gang scene. He recounts, “When money was tight and there was no food in the house I shoplifted bread and canned goods. It never felt like a crime to me, it was survival.”

In 1969, Woodfox was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 50 years. He managed to escape from the courthouse and make his way to New York, where he was arrested on bogus attempted robbery charges. Woodfox was sent to the Tombs detention center, where he met three members of the Panther 21, who were falsely accused of a fictitious plot to blow up the New York Botanical Gardens, department stores and police stations. Woodfox admired the poise and commitment of the Panthers amid dehumanizing conditions. In May 1971, after the longest trial in New York State history at the time, the Panther 21 were acquitted of all charges.

At the Tombs, Woodfox was given the novel A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley, which got him thinking for the first time that “one man could make a difference.” He developed a thirst for knowledge. In Solitary, he expresses appreciation for books donated by libraries to Angola prison, which he read voraciously, including those on slavery, socialism and independence movements from around the world.

Woodfox played an active role in uprisings at the Tombs and at the Queens House of Detention against overcrowding, rotten food, filth and the brutality meted out by the guards. When Woodfox, now marked as a “militant,” was sent to Louisiana’s Orleans Parish Prison, he was placed on its “Panther tier” reserved for New Orleans Panthers awaiting trial for defending themselves against a cop assault on BPP headquarters. Woodfox was soon designated for transfer to Angola. He joined the BPP and was assigned to establish a chapter and recruit members there.

Woodfox’s persecution highlights the decades-long war by the capitalist state against Panther militants. Shortly after the BPP was formed in 1966, it was deemed by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to be the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Under the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), over 30 Panthers were killed and hundreds more railroaded into prison hellholes for decades, where many died. The BPP, which represented the best of a generation of black radicals, was destroyed through a combination of FBI/cop terror and its own vicious factionalism exacerbated by COINTELPRO dirty tricks.

Despite the radicalism and personal courage of its militants, the BPP had no program for overturning the system of exploitation in which the oppression of black people is materially rooted. In particular, the Panthers rejected the centrality and strategic social power of the working class, leaving themselves more vulnerable to state repression. The Spartacist League always insisted that it was the duty of the workers movement to defend the Panthers against state victimization and sought to win black militants to a Marxist perspective—the need to build a vanguard party that would combat every manifestation of oppression and lead the multiracial working class to power through socialist revolution.

“The Legacy of Slavery Was Everywhere”

The prisons, along with the cops, courts and military, are an integral component of the state machinery of repression directed against the working class and oppressed in defense of capitalist rule and profit. Angola stands out as the most emblematic of the barbaric prison institutions dating from the defeat of Reconstruction and consolidation of Jim Crow segregation in the South. As Woodfox documents, Angola had been a slave-breeding plantation that covered over 18,000 acres. In 1869, the slave trader’s widow rented the land to a former Confederate major, who “leased” prisoners from New Orleans and other city jails to work his land. The convicts, many charged with minor crimes, were housed in former slave quarters and worked seven days a week, starved and beaten.

In 1901, Louisiana bought the land and turned it into a state prison. As Woodfox observes, “The legacy of slavery was everywhere. It was in the ground under our feet and in the air we breathed, and wherever we looked.” He adds, “Angola was run like an antebellum slave plantation.... The harsh conditions were so hurtful that strong men would cry. They broke.”

The authorities were never able to break Woodfox. In 1972, Woodfox and Wallace were falsely accused of killing prison guard Brent Miller and convicted in classic COINTELPRO trials. The following year, King met the same fate—framed up for the killing of a fellow prisoner. The prosecutions of the Angola 3 conformed to a template for Panthers in the halls of “justice”—racist jury rigging, concealment of exculpatory evidence, phony forensics, buying witnesses and appeals to the jury to punish them for their political activism.

Woodfox spent more than half of his life in a six-by-nine-foot windowless cell for 23 hours a day, allowed out to yard three hours a week. Despite being under constant surveillance, he was sometimes subjected to visual body cavity searches up to six times a day. Woodfox endured vicious beatings by the guards; for talking back, he was thrown into the Red Hat, a three-by-six-foot cell in which one “could stand in the middle of your cell and touch the walls on either side of you.” Kept in total isolation, eating alone and unable to attend religious or educational activities, Woodfox described in 2012 the emotional effect of years in solitary: “I ask that for a moment you imagine yourself standing at the edge of nothingness, looking at emptiness.”

Woodfox’s murder conviction was tossed out by the courts in 1992; he lost the retrial six years later. The conviction was again overturned in 2012. All the while, Woodfox remained behind bars, his jailers hell-bent on having him die in prison. Angola prison warden Burl Cain insisted in 2008 that even if Woodfox were not guilty, he would be kept in solitary because he still practiced “Black Pantherism.” So obvious was the frame-up that Miller’s widow, Leontine Rogers, believed Woodfox to be innocent, adding her voice to those calling for his release. As the state was preparing to try him for a third time in 2016, Woodfox, whose serious health concerns were exacerbated by his incarceration, pleaded no contest to lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary. He was sentenced to time served and released.

While in enforced isolation, Woodfox came to appreciate more and more the self-sacrifice his mother had made single-handedly raising and nurturing her family. He was devastated when he was not allowed to attend her funeral, and his first act upon his release in February 2016 was to visit her grave. Solitary also discusses the close personal bonds Albert developed with his comrades. Woodfox credits King, who got out of prison in 2001, for his tireless efforts to publicize the cases of Woodfox and Wallace. It was especially wrenching for him to watch the physical deterioration of Wallace, who died from liver cancer in October 2013, a mere three days after finally getting out of prison.

We honor Woodfox, along with his comrades King and Wallace. This decaying social order and its instruments of incarceration, torture and death deserve to perish. Our aim is to forge a 70 percent black, Latino and other minority party that is committed to mobilizing the working class in sweeping away the prisons and the entire apparatus of capitalist repression and establishing a workers government. For black liberation through socialist revolution!

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1156, 31 May 2019)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.