The debate over “black culture” has taken a turn for the especially absurd in recent months. If one were to take the Don Imuses of this country at their word, then somehow the daily horrors of the African-American experience–the poverty, the discrimination, the brutality–stem from the way the community views itself, from the “self-loathing” of the ghetto to the “thug mentality” of hip-hop. It’s the classic argument; that if only the black community would trade in its bling for bootstraps, then they will most surely prosper in the land of opportunity.
Tell that to Kenneth Foster.
Ten years ago, Kenneth was a young college student, a music lover, and recent father. Born in Austin, Texas, he spent his high school years working for several small record companies in the area. In 1995 he began his first year at St. Phillips College majoring in sociology, and less than a year later, in May of ’96, he started his own label, Tribulation Records. Kenneth had a bright future ahead of him, no doubt.
But a year later, Kenneth was convicted of murder. The previous August, he had been driving a car with three friends in the San Antonio area. One of those riding in the car, Mauriceo Brown, got out in front of a party to talk to a woman, Mary Patrick. While Kenneth and his other two friends were eighty feet away, waiting in the car, they heard a gunshot. Brown had shot Patrick’s boyfriend, Michael LaHood.
Kenneth never had a gun in his hand, never saw, let alone aimed at LaHood, and never he pulled the trigger. Even the prosecution admits this. And he did not know anyone was going to be shot that night.
But according to Texas’ “law of parties,” Kenneth should have anticipated the loss of life that was to come that night because he was in the same car as Brown. It’s a law straight out of a Franz Kafka novel, where the accused are expected to have an almost psychic ability to predict when a crime is going to happen.
Kenneth’s execution has been set for August 30th, 2007. He is guilty of nothing except driving a car.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise. This is Texas, the state that has executed the most people of any state since the reinstatement of the death penalty. A disproportionate number of these people have been of color. This is the former stomping ground of the Texecutioner George Bush, and the current Governor Rick Perry has already surpassed Dubya’s record of 156 executions. LaHood was the white son of a prominent Houston attorney. Kenneth is a working-class black man. It was the perfect concoction of sick ingredients to continue the pattern of the racist American injustice system.
But Kenneth has not spent the past ten years wallowing in misery. He is a founding member of DRIVE (Death Row Inter-Communalist Vanguard Engagement), a radical, multi-racial organization of death row inmates fighting for better conditions in prisons and against the injustice of the prison system. They have staged cafeteria sit-ins, hunger strikes, and worked with groups on the outside to publicize their cause. Kenneth also continues to write poetry about himself, his case, and the need for a world without racism and inequality. On August 22nd, he and fellow prisoner John Joe Amador, scheduled to be executed the day before Kenneth, announced they will be taking part in a “protest of passive non-participation” against their own executions. It is clear he is not giving up without a fight.
Because of these efforts, and because of the bald-faced racism his case puts on display, Kenneth’s cause has gained national and international attention. Activists in Texas and beyond have mobilized demanding his execution be stayed.
He has also gained support, not surprisingly, from the Welfare Poets, one of underground hip-hop’s most radical and outspoken groups. Their music has been a staple in many-an-activist’s CD player for a decade now. When Kenneth and other DRIVE members heard of the group in 2004, they had a letter sent to the Welfare Poets, extending an invitation to perform at an anti-death penalty rally in Austin. They accepted, and began to cultivate a personal relationship with Kenneth. As Ray Ramirez, a founding member of the Poets told me, “Learning about Kenneth’s case and seeing the injustice is real easy, but learning about the man has been a fascinating experience. He lives with an undying hope, always looking to the betterment of the world. He is a true soldier for the people and an amazing poet and writer at that.”
In 2006 the Welfare Poets contributed to a compilation called “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” which sampled the work of several artists opposed to the death penalty. Another performer on that comp was Kenneth’s wife Tasha, an MC who goes by the name Jav’lin. Her song “Walk With Me,” and the video for it, is about Kenneth’s case, and can be downloaded on her site (http://www.javlin.nl) for 99 cents, which goes toward his defense fund.
Jav’lin described to me recently what motivated her to write such a song:
“I write down everything I feel, sometimes that turns into a song. Well that’s what happened with ‘walk with me’. I wrote down how I felt about his situation, turned it into a song and started leaking that to people. People said it made the situation more visual, so I decided that if I did a video along with it that would really give people a good visual of what happened and it did. However, my initial reason for recording the song was just to let Kenneth hear this. Hip hop is the voice of the streets, music that appealed to Kenneth when he was still out in the streets and I wanted him to know that ‘the streets’ back here knew of his story and agreed that it was injustice that was placed upon him.”
Decades ago, racism was enforced with trees and nooses. Billie Holiday sang of this “strange fruit” in defiant protest. Today that same racism is backed up with needles and gurneys. It is a form of state sanctioned murder to keep people divided and scared. And despite everything spoon-fed to us about rap’s “violence,” Kenneth Foster’s case sheds ample light on where the real violence and depravity is coming from.
*To learn more about Kenneth’s case, DRIVE, and to sign the petition demanding his execution be stopped, go to FreeKenneth.com