“Nothing is more precious than freedom,” is a quotation attributed to Vo Nguyen Giap, a Vietnamese General who led his country through two liberation wars. The first was against French colonialists, the second against the Americans. And despite heavy and painful losses, Vietnam prevailed, defeating the first colonial quest at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and the second at Ho Chí Minh Campaign (1975).
General Giap, the son of a peasant scholar, stood tall in both wars, only bowing down to the resolve of his people. “Any forces that would impose their will on other nations will most certainly face defeat,” he once said. His words will always be true.
He died on Friday, October 4, at the age of 102.
On the same day, the former black panther Herman Wallace, who had spent 41-years of his life in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary, died from incurable liver cancer at the age of 71. Just a few days before his death, Judge Brian Jackson had overturned a charge that robbed Herman of much of his life. According to Jackson, Herman’s 1974 conviction of killing a prison guard was ‘unconstitutional.’
Despite the lack of material evidence, ‘discredited’ witnesses and a sham trial, Wallace, who was a poet and lover of literature, and two other prisoners known as the Angola Three, were locked up to spend a life of untold hardship for a crime they didn’t commit.
Now that Wallace is dead, two remain. One, Robert King, 70, was freed in 2001, and the other, Albert Woodfox, 66, is still in solitary confinement and “undergoes daily cavity searches,” reported the UK Independent newspaper.
“When his conviction was overturned it cleared the slate – he could die a man not convicted of a crime he was innocent of,” King said of the release of Wallace, who died few days later.
One of the last photos released while on his hospital bed, showed Wallace raising his clinched right fist, perpetuating the legendary defiance of a whole generation of African Americans and civil rights leaders. While some fought for civil rights in the streets of American cities, Wallace fought for the rights of prisoners. The four decades of solitary confinement were meant to break him. Instead, it made it him stronger.
“If death is the realm of freedom, then through death I escape to freedom” Wallace quoted Frantz Fanon in the introduction to a poem he wrote from prison in 2012.
In “A Defined Voice”, Wallace wrote:
They removed my whisper from general population,
To maximum security, I gained a voice;
They removed my voice from maximum security,
To administrative segregation, My voice gave hope;
They removed my voice from administrative segregation,
To solitary confinement, My voice became vibration for unity …
“Literature can and must elevate a man’s soul,” General Giap once said. The son of the ‘peasant scholar’ was right, as Wallace’s own words attest:
“The louder my voice the deeper they bury me,
“I SAID, THE LOUDER MY VOICE THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME!…”
There was so much in common between Giap and Wallace, and surely the two men knew it even though they had never met.
Giap fought colonial powers and died free. Wallace, known as the “Muhammad Ali of the Criminal Justice System”, spent most of his life a prisoner, but never lowered his clasped fist, not until he died. But then again, “If death is the realm of freedom, then through death I escape to freedom.”
The words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish can always find space in any discussion concerning freedom:
It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away…
It is possible for prison walls
For the cell to become a distant land
Without frontiers …
Can death be that ‘distant land without frontiers’, where Fanon, Darwish and Wallace meet and exchange notes on freedom and resistance?
Of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 1,200 suffer from various illnesses, and among them, according to UFree Network, 44 suffer from cancer. Among the nearly 5,000 prisoners, 320 are children. There is little doubt that each of these children sees Nelson Mandela as a hero. Herman Wallace is also a hero.
“Free all political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoner of consciousness.” Wallace ended his poem. His words were not directed at himself and his prison mates. From Palestine, to Afghanistan, to Guantanamo, to Louisiana, his words are loaded with meaning, and relevance.
“When we started out we weren’t thinking about ourselves, we were dealing with the system. That goes on,” said Robert King. And it will go on, because, as Giap had said, there is nothing more precious than freedom.
And those who fight against the ‘system’, any ‘system’, need to understand that without unity no battle can be won, not those of liberation wars, as in Palestine, nor those fought from solitary confinements.
In an interview with CNN in 2004, Giap, speaking of the US war on Iraq said that a nation that stands up and knows how to unite will always defeat a foreign invader. “When people have the spirit to reach for independent sovereignty … and show solidarity, it means the people can defeat the enemy,” the Vietnamese general said.
Like Wallace, Giap, 102, was expectedly very frail. Yet, along with Wallace, these ‘defined voices’ continue to define history.