Walidah Imarisha is a poet, filmmaker and served as the first editor of the political hip hop publication AWOL Magazine.
Hans Bennett: While many of us gathered here in Philadelphia on April 24 celebrating the birthday of Mumia Abu-Jamal, you were in Texas visting Haramia KiNassor (Kenneth Foster, Jr.) on death row. How was your visit?
Walidah Imarisha: It was a hard decision to be down in Texas instead of in Philly for Mumia’s birthday. Mumia’s Live From Death Row was a catalyst for so much of my political understanding and organizing work, and working on his campaign is one of the main reasons I moved to Philadelphia.
But I knew that being in Texas and meeting with Haramia would be one of the organizing moves that Mumia would be supportive of, and Haramia and I kept his birthday on our minds and our tongues as we talked about the work Mumia does, in relation to the work that Haramia and the other brothas on death row in Texas are doing.
Texas is rough. Prison in Texas is incredibly difficult, and death row in Texas brings to mind Mumia’s quote of a “bright shining hell.”
I met Haramia, who has been on death row for 10 years, first through his poetry, when I was the editor of AWOL Magazine, where he has had several pieces published, and then through The Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner family organization I work with in Philadelphia. Hasan Shakur, a close comrade of Haramia’s, started an HRC chapter in Texas and brought Haramia in, and he served for a while on our advisory council. I had never met him in person before April 23rd.
I entered the death row visiting area, the same area I went to see Hasan Shakur before they executed him Aug. 31, 2006. Usually visits on Texas’ row are only two hours, but because I came from out of town, I was able to request two four hour visits on consecutive days. I sat down in front of a cage, behind glass, an all white cage. As I sat and waited for them to bring Haramia out, I remembered looking through that same glass to see Hasan on the other side, his dark frame looking even larger in the cramped whiteness of the mesh cage.
They finally brought Haramia out, dressed all in white as are all prisoners at the Polunsky Unit. I was struck by how young he looked. Just like Hasan, these two strong brothas, who have been through hell every day, who are committed souljahs to the struggle, still can have their faces split with wide summer day smiles that call their child selves back into their bodies.
The time visiting with him today flew by. He has such an incredibly quick mind, we went from one subject to the next, and he never lost his concentration. We could get forty minutes and five topics off point, but he was still able to bring to back home and tie it together.
He has really tapped into art and poetry and hip hop as tools in the anti-death penalty movement, and in the struggle in general, which is a vital organizing tool to get the word out. He was one of the inspirations for the hip hop/spoken word band/collective The Welfare Poets’ anti-death penalty compilation CD Cruel and Unusual Punishment, www.myspace.com/deathpenaltycd, which is a powerful collection of raw conscious hard hitting pieces about criminal injustice in this country.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment also includes a song by Haramia’s fiancée, a hip hop artist from the Netherlands called Jav’lin. She did an incredible song called “Walk With Me,” and she just released the video of it, which is up at www.freekenneth.com, in addition to other places. I watched it as soon as I got back, and I was really moved by it, both as a piece of art (she did it on her own and out of her pocket and I thought it was really well put together and professionally done) and as a political organizing tool that really speaks to the realities of the people who love folks caught up in the criminal justice system, especially death row.
The first day was tense, because we were waiting to hear back from the U.S. Supreme Court. Haramia had gotten a positive ruling from San Antonio federal District Judge Royal Furgeson, who overturned his death sentence on March 3, saying that he could not be given the death penalty for his part in the crime. However, the state appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that judge’s ruling, and reinstituted the death penalty. Haramia’s lawyer then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The minute I walked out of the prison on April 23rd, I had a message from Claire, one of his tireless supporters. The Supreme Court had declined to hear his case. It was definitely a moment of feeling completely hopeless for me, because the facts in the case that everyone agrees on so clearly do not warrant a death sentence. I did not expect justice from a system so flawed and corrupt, but it was still a hard blow.
But it was Haramia who walked me through it, by showing his resilience and inner strength the next day. He walked in with his head high, knowing that they would issue him a date of execution (which they did five days ago – the date set for his execution is Aug. 30, the day before they executed his comrade Hasan a year ago), and still committed mind, body and soul to continuing the work for freedom, just as Mumia is, and Hasan and all the other conscious folks locked down across this nation, and they struggle not for themselves, but for all of us, for our collective freedom.
Visiting flew by on April 24th, and it seemed like I had just walked in the door when the guard tapped me on the shoulder. I put up my hand to touch his through the glass, the closest to a greeting and a goodbye possible. I walked out, past the cages they hold the prisoners in, through the automatic metal doors. I looked back through the window, and the white mesh backing of the visiting cell almost obscured his frame, but then he raised a black fist in the air, and I felt his smile through the glass.
HB: Haramia’s execution date is set for Aug.30. You’ve written that everyone, from the prosecutor on down, agrees that Haramia did not kill anyone, he never even touched the gun? How can someone be executed on these grounds?
WI: Haramia was convicted under the Law of Parties, which has two parts: “A person is criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another if “acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense he solicits, encourages, directs, aids or attempts to aid the other persons to commit the offense” or “If, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it, if the offense was committed in furtherance of the unlawful purpose and was one that should have been anticipated as a result of the carrying out of the conspiracy.”
So basically it’s saying you are as responsible for a crime if you knowingly help and support someone in that crime OR you are guilty for the crime if you SHOULD HAVE KNOWN it would happen based on your actions.
Haramia was 19 years old when the crime he was convicted for occurred. He and three other young men were out riding around, and decided to commit a series of armed robberies. Haramia’s role in them was only as the driver of the car. After holding up two parties, Haramia asked them to stop the robberies, which all agreed to.
On the way home, they stopped the car so one of the men, Mauriceo Brown could talk to a woman. He got into an argument with her boyfriend Michael LaHood, and shot and killed LaHood. Haramia had no knowledge that this was occurring until it was too late. Brown acted on his own, and admitted to the shooting (claiming it was in self-defense), and freely stated that he acted alone. Brown has been executed by the death machine of Texas. In invoking that statute, prosecutors had to prove that Foster and his cohorts agreed to commit armed robbery when they encountered LaHood, and that they should’ve anticipated that their risky behavior might cause LaHood’s death.
Those of us supporting Haramia argue that he was falsely convicted under the Law of Parties, that this case does not fall without the jurisdiction of that law (he was not charged with armed robbery, only with first degree murder).
But on the bigger scale, which is the way Haramia, as a political organizer and activist, wants it framed, we also hold that the Law of Parties is completely flawed and needs to be eliminated. To try someone for what they should have known was going to happen is Orwellian in design and horribly frightening in its application. But of course, the work doesn’t stop there; we have to address the fact the death penalty is a brutal corrupt flawed and pointless means of “justice,” and do it away with it. We must build a criminal justice system that is based on rehabilitation, restoration and healing, about making whole, rather than punishment and further violating the communities and individuals who have been victimized by the ravages of oppression. This is the work that Haramia does every day from a cell the size of a bathroom. This is the work that we, out here, are tasked with as well, if we are look ourselves in the face.
HB: Do you think him being a political organizer is a motive for attempting to carry out this extreme sentence?
WI: Haramia became a political organizer after his conviction, while on death row. The reactions that he and other political organizers in prison and on the row suffer is definitely based on their commitment to justice and uncovering the truth. There is a strong desire, on the part of the prison system, the courts and this society, to silence the voices of the oppressed who demand not only answers, but solutions and who refuse to compromise or negotiate away pieces of their liberation.
HB: You wrote that Haramia’s death row organization DRIVE is “an amazing example of oppressed people in the worst of circumstances organizing themselves for self determination.” What kind of organizing is DRIVE doing? Has the movement now spread to Philadelphia?
WI: (www.drivemomovement.org) DRIVE is a very powerful case of oppressed peoples directly affected in the bowels (not even the belly) of the beast organizing themselves. It was founded by Haramia and other brothas on the row in Texas. It is organized across racial lines, which is fairly unheard of in prisons. DRIVE is committed to nonviolently opposing the death penalty in all its manifestations. They protest not just their own death sentences, but those of people across this country.
This has taken the form of hunger strikes, the last of which went from October of 2006 to January of 2007, a three month strike. Haramia spoke of that when I went to visit him, saying how difficult it was to see these men turn into walking skeletons. But they feel that they can not in good conscience go along with the death penalty, with all its contradictions, the overall racism and classism of who is issued the death penalty, and the inherent inhumanity of taking a person’s life.
They also have on their website a memorial to the people who refused to “walk,” that is, when their death sentence came time, they refused to go along with the program and walk to the death chamber. Haramia said they refuse to be led like cattle to the slaughter, that as human beings, it is an inherent desire to want to continue to live, and that each person who refuses to walk is engaging in an act of civil disobedience.
A recent really exciting development with DRIVE is that they have expanded to include a chapter from women on death row in Pennsylvania. This is such a powerful step because these women are organizing and mobilizing themselves, and also because there is so little discourse about women in prison, let alone women on death row.
HB: Are there any appeals left, or any other grounds to stop the execution
WI: Haramia has one appeal left, back in Texas state court. But they have never granted an appeal. And there is one more push, to ask Governor Perry for clemency, this from a governor who has never granted clemency. Haramia’s lawyer has filed the appeal and feels it is strong.
HB: What can people do to support Haramia right now?
WI I can’t stress enough how vital public pressure is right now for Haramia’s case. There needs to be a public outcry that there is no question in this case, everyone agrees that he did not pull the trigger, he never even touched the gun. He is being sentenced to die for driving a car, and that should outrage every single person that hears it.
We’re asking folks to write letters to Governor Perry:
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428
To log onto his website www.freekenneth.com and sign the online petition, and to spread the word as far as possible to people. We have to act now while this brotha is still here with us. I know that I, personally, am heartsick at losing people in this struggle.
HB: Anything you’d like to add?
WI: One of the most powerful things about DRIVE is that it shows that for as powerless as the system tries to convince each of us, that it is simply not true. These men on death row, locked down in the heart of the biggest state killing apparatus in the world, who are supposed to be completely at the mercy of the DOC, instead are reclaiming their power and taking stands. When I am feeling depressed and hopeless, I think of all those struggling where we are told everyday struggle is impossible. I think of those who should be so warped by their circumstances, but instead are more human than those who keep them in captivity. I think of these people who make something out of nothing, and I know that not only can all of us go on, we must.