Posted April 25, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in Features

Resisting the New Plantation



Black Panther member and political prisoner Robert King in 2009. Creative Commons. Photo courtesy of THOMAS GOOD

Black Panther member and political prisoner Robert King in 2009. Creative Commons. Photo courtesy of THOMAS GOOD

What does he look like? That’s what a friend wondered when I told her that Robert H. King, a Black Panther and one of the Angola 3, would be speaking at Evergreen. I was curious too. What does a man who spent 29 years in solitary confinement look like? What does he talk like, think like? There is some type of human curiosity at work here that transcends politics, and which helped draw a politically diverse audience of more than 50 people to hear King speak on a Tuesday night.

King, true to the Black Panther legacy of sharp dress, wore brown slacks, a black turtleneck, and a slick silver fedora. He spoke slowly, his words rising and falling on the rhythm of a deep Southern drawl fashioned on the streets of New Orleans, where he was born and lived for most of his free years. Imprisoned in 1970, King is an old man now, having paid out his best years to the Closed Correction unit of the Louisiana State Penitentiary—more commonly known as Angola.

Robert King is also a black man, of course, which is not coincidental to his case but at the very center. His skin color is, King said, the reason he was arrested for robbery in 1970. No evidence linked him to the crime, he explained, and the only eyewitness, when shown King’s picture by the police, said that he was not the man. Turning down a plea deal that would have recommended 15 years in prison, King, who believed no jury could convict him, took his case to trial. He was found guilty and given 35 years.

“I was still under the illusion that there was fairness in the judicial system,” King said.

When he was arrested, King was married, his wife was pregnant, and he had a job. “I felt like I was an American,” he said.

After his conviction, King decided that he had been turned into a slave, that “the prison is the new plantation”—a metaphor that becomes disturbingly literal at Angola, a maximum security prison where inmates—80 percent of whom are African American—are forced to labor in the cotton fields, a work farm that resembles the plantation it once was and that is named for the home country of the slaves who were brought there. Like a slave, he had been stripped of his legal rights but he still had a moral right, King said: a slave’s right—the right to rebel. And he did. Among other acts of defiance, he tried to escape several times and succeeded once.

I was in prison, but I never let prison get in me.”

—Robert H. King

“Every chance I got to aggravate the system, I did!” King declared. “And I make no apologies for that!”

The lecture hall erupted with spontaneous applause.

Robert King became interested in the Black Panthers shortly after his 1970 conviction. At that point, King said, “I understood segregation and racism…but I could not artic-uh-late these things.” In the Panthers, he found an ideology that made sense of the world he lived in, that gave him a means of understanding his anger and indignation. His new politics, he said, helped sustain him through his 31-year incarceration.

“America was set on oppressing a segment of its people,” King explained. “And the Black Panthers understood this…. That’s why they were demonized.” He stopped. “Now, I’m not trying to legitimize the Black Panther Party. Because history has already done that.”

In 1973, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, prisoners at Angola and King’s Panther comrades, were convicted of murdering a prison guard. King was being held at the Orleans Parish Prison when the guard was killed, but he said he was soon shipped to Angola and placed under investigation for the murder. At most, Woodfox and Wallace are connected to the murder by tenuous evidence. As Amnesty International put it in a 2013 press release: “…no physical evidence links them [Woodfox and Wallace] to the crime—potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost and the testimony of the main eyewitness has been discredited.” Nevertheless, all three men were condemned to solitary confinement, later to become famous as the Angola 3.

The prison authorities claimed the men were dangerous. King believes he and his comrades were targeted because they were Black Panthers—activists working to improve deplorable prison conditions and eliminate systematic violence and rape; antagonists to authority trying to educate their fellow prisoners; a threat to the status quo.

In 2001, King’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison. Herman Wallace was freed on October 1, 2013 when his conviction was also overturned. He died three days later of liver cancer. Albert Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned several times, said King, but the State of Louisiana continues to appeal. Woodfox remains in solitary confinement where, as of 2013, he and Wallace had spent 40 years.

King called his release a victory, but a bittersweet victory—because his Angola 3 comrades and many others remained imprisoned unjustly and in terrible conditions. And though he is a free man now, there are the years in prison that the government can’t give back—and the permanent of effects of 29 lonely years of isolation in a six by nine foot cell. In his talk, King did not speak much about the experience of solitary. When asked how he survived, he answered with humor.

“People ask: how did you not go crazy? Well, one minute there…. I did not say I am not crazy.” He laughed and added “prison affected me. You don’t get dipped in waste and not come out smelly.” King later took on a more serious tone regarding his incarceration. “I was in prison,” said King, “but I never let prison get in me.”

King’s talk was part of an April-long series of events called “Rethinking Prisons Month,” hosted by new campus organization Abolish Cops and Prisons.