After The Plantones: Looking Back On An Autumn Of Struggle In D.F.

January 16, 2014

Angry Man with Flag in front of Police

[I wrote the following based upon two trips to Mexico City, one in July-September 2013 and the other for two weeks in December 2013. I don’t claim to fully explain the current state of Mexican politics and social movements, but perhaps this can provide, for the “vecino distante” (distant neighbor) in the United States, an idea of what’s happening right next door, always of importance and unfortunately, usually ignored. – DMZ]

The papers on every news kiosk in Mexico City in late August, 2013, blared denunciations: “Imagine – Mexico Without Soccer!” screamed one newspaper. Pictures of crying children stuck outside of a stadium clutching the colors of their favorite team were plastered on the front page of another paper.

The target of the media’s ire was the National Coordinator of Education Workers, or CNTE, Mexico’s nationwide teachers’ union, who had the previous day shut down a soccer match by surrounding the stadium. For weeks, crowds of teachers had been disrupting anything they could in Mexico’s capital, including the massive Benito Juarez International Airport.

The teachers were out in force to protest against President Enrique Pena Nieto’s (or EPN’s) proposed changes to the country’s education system, political system, and petroleum. Named the “Pacto Por Mexico” (Pact For Mexico), an eerie echo of the U.S. Republican Party’s 1990’s “Contract With America”, these “reforms” were widely seen as blatant neoliberal attacks upon the Mexican body civic.

EPN’s plans for education were based on the government’s call to improve the admittedly-dismal state of the country’s education system. However, the proposed solution was a direct assault on the teachers’ union, with a major bone of contention being a proposed test that every teacher in Mexico would have to complete, and the union warned that those teachers who failed the test would lose their jobs. The government countered that this was fiction, and a bitter debate raged in different publications and websites, with the charmingly-named “Mexicanos Primero” or “Mexicans First” website providing a slick counterpoint to the unions’ arguments.

Perhaps the teachers who failed the test would indeed not be fired, at least not immediately, but it would provide the state with ammunition for future anti-labor shenanigans, so it’s no wonder they were opposed to the endeavor. Part of the problem in deciphering Mexican politics is that it is utter foolishness to believe anything at all that the Mexican government says, ever. In spite of multiple social movements that have shaken the country often to its core, and the ruling PRI party being knocked from its position of absolute power after 71 years, Mexico remains in the hands of an increasingly uber-wealthy kleptocratic ruling class. Lest we forget: until he was kicked to second place earlier this year by Warren Buffet, the richest man in the world was Carlos Slim, a Mexican, albeit one who lives in an armored villa in the exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood. Even the Mexicanos Primero website itself is insidious: it is owned & operated by the same family that owns Televisa, one of Mexico’s two television stations, who some say are using their position to poise themselves to step into the job of running the country’s schools once the unions are broken and the doors are opened to privatization.

And so in August the CNTE gathered in Mexico City and set up a planton, or a protest camp in the Zocalo, and began staging daily marches. They were soon joined by the more militant Section 22 from Oaxaca, the same union that had been at the center of the massive protests in 2006 that rocked that city and its environs, as well as teachers from Michoacan, Veracruz and elsewhere. And within a few weeks the teacher’s marches had shut down two television stations, a government building called the Segob, and the aforementioned soccer match. Then they successfully closed the capital’s massive (and mind-numbingly labyrinthine) Benito Juarez International Airport by blocking all the roads that led to it. Twice. Then the CNTE called for a massive mobilization on September 3rd, 2013.

Uncle Sam, Charra, y Luchador

There were two mass marches, one down Insurgentes Avenue and the other from the Monument of the Revolution towards the Chamber of Deputies. Upwards of 100,000 people filled the streets in both locations. I followed the latter group, which was fronted by a blue phalanx of riot police walking backwards, then followed directly by a cluster  of journalists, their cameras hoisted on a small forest of monopods, who would later unknowingly act as a buffer between protesters and police.



The march was also lined on both sides by police, who were using the “Berlin Kettle” form of demonstration control. The Mexico City cops looked to have called upon all of their reserves that day, as I saw youths of no more than 17 years old and señores of over 60 among their ranks, their lopsided riot helmets barely fitting their heads. The comical and the dangerous mixed together in Mexico City.

The march for the Chamber of Deputies left the Monument and walked past the Alameda and the museum of Bellas Artes, turning south on the Eje Central, all the while flanked by police with plastic riot shields, making a kind of flimsy wall between the march and the onlookers on the sidewalks.

As we passed one intersection a small group of masked protesters clad in faded black clothes and wielding sticks and metal pipes ran up from a side street.

Masked Militants approach police

Standing and pausing directly in front of the plastic police-shield wall as if for dramatic effect, they then straight out attacked the police line, throwing punches over the cops’ shields and pounding the surprised officers with metal poles. The police line broke, other militants joined the fray, and thus began a day-long running skirmish of multiple fights, arrests, attacks and counterattacks.

Protester Readies Molotov

The main march moved on, leaving the militants to be pursued by squads of riot police, but the mood had intensified.

Police Helmets in Sun

By late afternoon the marchers had stopped several blocks from the Chamber of Deputies, itself ringed by ten-foot-tall metal barricades. While the representatives of the teachers’ union debated and negotiated whether the march was to advance, and while everyone else chided and sweated in the heat, the police, still massed in front of us in five-deep lines of officers, sent a small radio-controlled “drone” helicopter to take pictures of the assembled crowd from above. When a group of protesters began taking potshots at it with powerful, five-foot long Mexican bottlerockets, the drone ‘copter buzzed quickly to safety behind the police lines while the demonstrators laughed and cheered.

The afternoon wore on, with union representatives intoning speeches over a PA system on the back of a pickup, and demonstrators patiently waiting under the beating sun to see if we would advance on the Chamber of Deputies or not.

CNTE Supporters wait in street linked arms

Militants Wait In Street, linked arms

Cocksure militants dashed off to buy gasoline and began making molotov cocktails in the middle of the street, in full view of the hundreds of police, and they were duly photographed by plainclothesmen on the nearby rooftops.

Suddenly there were a series of teargas grenades exploding and people began running down the narrow side streets, pursued by police. As they fell back someone made a flimsy barricade in the middle of the street and lit it on fire, and armored police vans rolled over it, chasing the crowd through an abandoned amusement park and past a large group of Aztec dancers who were practicing their routines, all of which added a surreal edge to the day.

After putting many blocks between themselves and the police that crowd of demonstrators headed towards the San Antonio Abad metro station, as clots of other tired demonstrators joined them, trudging along the sidewalk in the grimy Mexico City air. Then there were the sounds of scuffling behind them and the protesters broke into a run, with three armored police trucks bearing down upon them. They poured into the metro station, vaulting the turnstiles and pounding up the stairs to the platform. A train arrived and the marchers boarded, as police officers swarmed into the station and pulled the brakes on the train, then boarded it, truncheons swinging, mercilessly beating some people, dragging others away by their hair, and opening up with pepper-spray inside the subway car at anyone they deemed an appropriate target. People yelled and protested but they dragged their victims away as the train finally lurched out of the station, and it was only thanks to the heroic filming of the video-activistas of the Subversiones media group, who had one of their own clapped in irons and packed off to jail for his efforts, that the story of those brutal arrests even got out to the world at all, as the Mexican corporate news media were nowhere to be found.

The protests of that day reverberated through the news media, and more actions followed in the coming weeks. But with Independence Day, September 16th, rapidly approaching the government desperately wanted the teachers’ planton out of the Zocalo. And so on September 13th, thousands of riot police charged the encampment and evicted the teachers, many of whom fell back to the Monument Of The Revolution and promptly set up another camp, and called for another demonstration on October 2nd, the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.

Seccion 22 en planton, 12:13

That march was hotly anticipated, coming as it did on the heels of the past months’ organizing and demonstrations. In response the marchers were met with thousands of riot police, resulting in a day long series of conflicts that ended in 107 arrests and the downtown streets once again rolling in tear gas.

As December loomed, and the government prepared to enter the Chamber of Deputies to debate the “Political Reform” and the “Energy Reform” sections of the Pacto Por Mexico, the latter dealing specifically with privatization of the country’s oil, organizers called for another mobilization on December 2nd.

In the meantime, Andres Manuel Lopez Obredor or AMLO, former mayor of the capital and 2006 PRD presidential candidate (who had his victory snatched away from him by PRI computer shenanigans in that year) had used his political clout to form a new group, called the Movimiento Por La Regeneracion Nacional (Movement of National Regeneration) or  Morena. As the CNTE organized its demonstrations and debated its tactics, AMLO now called on the Morenistas to rally at the Zocalo on December 2nd – but at the exact same time as the CNTE had called for their own demonstrations. Once again, the PRD seemed to be fulfilling its role as the “loyal opposition” and acting as a buffer between social movements and the state.

Meanwhile, in a clear attempt to intimidate the protesters, the government declared publicly that there would be undercover police infiltrating the marches, sending chills down people’s spines as they speculated about agents provocateurs and “snatch squads”. The stage looked set for a repeat of the violent clashes of December 2012, exactly one year before, when protests against EPN’s inauguration to the presidency turned into bloody police beatings and mass arrests.

Still, as we gathered that morning at the Monumento Para La Revolucion, the question remained: what could the teachers do? Occupying pubic spaces, massive marches, shutting down Mexico City’s airport multiple times – these tactics that in other countries would send tremors through society, in Mexico all of these had been tried already in recent months and years, and  yet still the state plowed onward with its plans. The Mexican body politic had clearly stated its opposition to what was going on, and yet it continued.

The morning of December 2nd, thousands of people gathered at the Monument To The Revolution,  and we began trooping along Reforma towards downtown, with clots of black-clad plainclothes police on the sidewalks on either side following us. Was the march heading to the Zocalo, where the Morena movement would be holding a speech-fest, or elsewhere? No one had come up with a plan it seemed, and we marched past the Alameda and eventually, indeed, to the Zocalo, where we were greeted by a massive MORENA banner above a stage as PRD politicians thundered through the P.A. system their determination to combat EPN’s reforms. Our march of teachers, unionists, and anarchists melted into the much larger crowd, and at that moment the energy was lost. We had barely arrived when the Morena rally ended, and the last CNTE protest of 2013 ended with a whimper and not a bang. A small group of militants later broke off to go and pelt the studios of Televisa with rocks and there followed a few arrests, but overall the mood was one of dejectedness. The question remained: what is to be done?

"Morena banner "Robo De Tiempos"

Now the focus turned to the Senate vote on the nation’s oil. But in the meantime, a new armed guerrilla group announced its presence in the country.

Meanwhile, In The Hinterland

All of this was happening in Mexico City, the nation’s capital, and Mexico is an extremely centralized country. However in the “background” as it were, in the states of Guerrero and Michoacan, after enduring years of horrific violence at the hands of the various drug cartels, the campesinos had, as they say, taken the law into their own hands.

The first of these “community police” organizations, La Policía Comunitaria of Guerrero, was begun in 1995. When they held their 15th anniversary (which I reported on here) in 2010, they were the only organization of their kind in the country. As of this writing, there are now  autodefensa or self defense groups in at least ten states in Mexico, by some counts. And some, like the people’s defense group in Cherán, Michoacan, have also arisen to defend their region’s forests from illegal logging, an additional area of business the drug cartels have recently entered into.

And on December 3rd, two days after the CNTE marched to the Zocalo, a new guerrilla group emerged in Guerrero, the Armed Revolutionary Liberation Forces of the People, or FAR-LP. Mexicans had been expecting something like this for awhile, especially as Guerrero, along with Michoacan, are the states in the country where arguably the most dynamic social movements are occurring – as locals battle narcos over control of the land and public safety.

The FAR-LP probably contains members of the recently-disbanded Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, which had started in Guerrero and later split into smaller factions.

The point here is that in the background to all of the actions in the capital, Mexico is a country that has endured years of unbridled carnage from the narco-wars, and the population has responded in kind with grassroots movements of self-defense. This adds a whole other layer to contemporary Mexican politics, and one that is unpredictable – a pair of wild cards for the future of the country.

Morenistas En Frente Del Senado

Back in Mexico City the attention now turned to the Senate vote on privatizing the nation’s petroleum. Mexico’s nationalized oil goes back to 1936, when Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas played a shrewd game of political brinksmanship and bet that Franklin D. Roosevelt would be too preoccupied with the looming world war to land the Marines at Veracruz (as Woodrow Wilson had in 1914) were Cardenas to pull a political maneuver that was unsavory to los gringos, and he proved correct.

Cardenas nationalized the country’s petroleum, threw out the yanqui oil corporations, and the oil became a source of national pride, with Mexicans well aware that they lived just south of a nation that is infamous for invading countries on behalf of its gas companies. Now eighty-odd years later, EPN’s government claimed that “cooperation” was needed between Pemex, the national Mexican oil company, and foreign corporations. This was clearly coded language for privatization, and everyone knew it. The Senate was set to debate the issue, and the Morenistas set up large video screens in front of the Senate building to broadcast the debates inside, with the building itself ringed by twelve-foot high metal barricades. Those metal walls in turn were plastered with posters, stickers and graffiti decrying the selling off of the nation’s petroleum reserves. “Traidores!” – “Traitors!” barked some, others going further “Putos Por Exxon!” – “Whores For Exxon!”.

Eyes on Metal Walls and Protest signs

Morena supporters were out in force in front of the Senado hammering on the metal walls with fists, feet, and sticks, attempting to drown out the discussions inside with their cacophony.

Banging on gate fence with flag

A man with a short Mohawk haircut made repeated flying kicks at the metal walls while the lines of protesters beating on them clamored on as the sun fell. All along the blocks on Reforma that housed the Mexican Senate the Morenistas had pitched their tents and watched the debate on the portable video screens.

Morenistas watch debates w: statue

One by one the different politicians mounted the podium with the crowd either cheering or jeering depending upon who was addressing the Senado. Fair-skinned PANistas somberly declared the need for “progress” and re-affirmed their deep concern for their homeland’s future, while the PRIistas said pretty much the same thing, and the PRD denounced them all, but itself lacked the seats to stop them.

Anti-EPN poster

The mood was angry that day, but later seemed to turn more festive, maybe because it was also the first day of posada, a traditional December through January series of parties, or perhaps because this important decision happened to coincide with the annual “Coca Cola Parade” down the Eje Central, when people dress in red and white to show their appreciation for the corporation that destroys children’s teeth across the country.

But at the end of the day, the vote went through, and Mexico’s petroleum was officially un-nationalized. A historic move against the people had just happened, and no one seemed to know what to do next. The Morenistas packed up their tents and video screens and went home, and the capital began to close up for the holidays. As we rolled into 2014, the remaining teachers’ encampments at Revolution Monument were evicted by police on January 6th, putting an end to this particular chapter in that movement’s history.

Morenistas at dusk at Senado

So what does this mean? The teachers union being beat down means that, if the government follows through with its plans and privatizes the school system, thousands if not millions of unemployed people may be dumped onto the economy of an already poor country. Meanwhile the petroleum being sold off will most likely raise the price of gasoline and therefore the cost of living in the country will go up, perhaps dramatically. One need look no further than the example of the Mexican telephone system, Telmex, which was privatized by the government and then promptly purchased by the aforementioned billionaire Carlos Slim, and now Mexicans pay the highest rates for their cellphones on the entire planet.

It’s pointless to call Mexico a “powder keg”, as countless regions in the world can be accurately said to match that description at any given time. One difference with Mexico is that every once in a while, Mexico actually explodes. Indeed that is precisely what many think was the actual reason behind the current “Drug War” in Mexico: President Calderon wanted to freeze the social movements that seemed to be sweeping the country, from the millions who took to the streets to support AMLO when the election was stolen from him in 2006, to the militant teachers of Oaxaca who virtually took over that city’s center for several months that same year. The image of Mexico that was projected all over the world was of a people with its fists in the air, and just a few years later that image had changed to one of decapitated drug soldiers propped along a highway in the middle of the desert.

But now, through its self-defense groups, unions, and other social movements, Mexico appears to be coming back to the forefront of struggle, or one can only hope. Here’s to a new year of social movements, all over the world.

"Mexico en Resistencia" Graffitti

Hauling Up The Morning With Herman Wallace

October 17, 2013

[I spent a couple of days in early October helping care for Herman Wallace, who died on October 4th. I wanted to write something about his death, and here it is. – DMZ]

On October 4th, 2013, at 7:30 a.m., Herman “Hooks” Wallace died in New Orleans’ Twelfth Ward, surrounded by family and supporters. He had been free from prison for only three days after spending 41 years in solitary confinement in Angola Prison, part of a group of political prisoners, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert “King” Wilkerson, known as The Angola Three.

Herman Wallace

The three men met in Angola Prison in 1971, where they were serving time for armed robbery. In response to the brutal treatment that prisoners were receiving at the hands of the guards they formed an Angola Prison chapter of The Black Panther Party. In 1972 Woodfox and Wallace were accused of murdering a prison guard and received life sentences, to be served in solitary confinement. The two men always maintained their innocence and claimed that they had been unjustly railroaded by the Louisiana courts as punishment for their political organizing. They became known as The Angola Two and were supported in their plea for justice by the then very active New Orleans Black Panthers.

But the New Orleans Panthers were organizing in what was at the time arguably one of the most repressive political climates in the U.S. Constantly threatened with eviction from the offices they rented, and involved in two armed shootouts with police, the N.O.L.A. Panthers eventually took up residence in the Desire housing projects, where residents helped defend them from police attacks.

During this same period there was an active Angola Two Support Committee in New Orleans. However, supporters were eventually to learn that two of the main organizers of the Committee were F.B.I. informants, part of the government’s “Cointelpro” program which targeted and informed on thousands of activists from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s.

As a result of these and other pressures, both the New Orleans Black Panthers and the Angola Two support committee dissolved around 1975. And for the next twenty-one years, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were on their own, members of political movements that were now being relegated to history books and documentary films. Locked in solitary confinement in a prison that had once been a slave plantation, the Angola Two joined the ranks of the U.S.’s long list of political prisoners from that period including other Black militants like Geronimo Pratt and Mumia Abu Jamal, American Indian Movement activists like Leonard Peltier, and Weathermen like David Gilbert and Marilyn Buck.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president and a concerted campaign began to admonish the social movements and radicals of the 1960’s as deluded dreamers who had done the world more damage than good. Nonetheless, these imprisoned militants of yesteryear inspired my own generation of political activists as a cause worth supporting, for they had all received sentences far beyond what crimes identical to theirs usually received, and were clear cases of U.S. government repression against political agitators. I was introduced to many of them through a book called “Hauling Up The Morning” which was an anthology of writings by political prisoners, and one of the first political posters I ever put on my wall was one that featured rows of pictures of the nation’s political prisoners with the words “Face Reality: There Are Political Prisoners In The United States” emblazoned across its top. A bit strident perhaps, but I was twenty-one years old.

%22Face reality - political prisoners%22

Even so, I still didn’t hear about The Angola Two case until 1998, during the lead-up to the first-ever nationwide gathering of anti-prison campaigners, called Critical Resistance, which was to be held in Oakland, California in the summer of that year. The organizers of the conference received a letter from Herman Wallace, explaining the case of The Angola Two and asking for the support of Critical Resistance, especially as Albert Woodfox was about to be granted a new hearing in his case.

I was living in Austin, Texas at the time and I got a call from Scott Fleming, a lawyer in Oakland who was helping with Critical Resistance. He read Herman’s letter to me and asked if I knew anyone in Louisiana who might be able to set up a new support committee for The Angola Two. I told Scott that I had heard there was a radical bookstore that had just opened in New Orleans called The Crescent Wrench and maybe that would be a good place to start.

Brackin Camp, one of the collective members at Crescent Wrench, remembers a local organizer named Malik Rahim coming into the bookstore, introducing himself, and telling them about The Angola Two. Albert Woodfox’s hearing was set to happen in a few weeks’ time and Rahim was looking to organize transportation to attend the proceedings. The Crescent Wrench volunteers threw in, Malik, Brackin and others drove to attend the hearing, and that year the Angola Two Support Committee was re-born.

Around that time a very important chapter in U.S. history was beginning, albeit one that went unnoticed by large numbers of people and the media: the incarcerated population of the United States exploded, hitting 2.1 million people (depending upon how one counted), up from 300,000 in 1978, making the United States the country with the highest number of people under the control of it criminal justice system in the world. And in 1996, for the first time ever, the number of people incarcerated in United States prisons for non-violent crimes surpassed the number of people convicted of violent crimes.

Much of the responsibility lay with the country’s “War On Drugs”, begun under Reagan and continued under Bush pére and Clinton, which mandated draconian “mandatory minimum” sentencing guidelines for scores of offences and led to the construction of “supermax” prisons around the country. Prisons and prisoners became the focus of organizing and activism around the U.S., and in Austin we organized a project called The Inside Books Project, which sent free books to Texas prisoners, who for the most part lacked libraries or any other amenities which might make their time in prison in any way helpful to them or society. All talk about rehabilitation or reform were long gone from U.S. prisons, and Texas was no exception. Through Inside Books Project we tried to publicize the issue of prisons and prisoners, and The Angola Two became our local political prisoner cause célèbre.

Herman Wallace was a tireless advocate of the Angola Two, constantly writing letters about the case to whomever would listen, and he and I began to talk on the phone regularly, him calling me from inside Angola Prison and me answering him from my apartment in Austin. We also exchanged many letters, and at that time I was hosting a program on Austin’s KOOP radio about prisons and I would read his letters over the airwaves whenever I received them.

I remember Herman calling me when Bill Clinton was leaving office, expressing his frustration that Marilyn Buck, another U.S. political prisoner, had not been released. I couldn’t believe I was listening to a man who had been buried alive for so many years lamenting about another prisoner’s misfortune. Make no mistake – Herman Wallace was one of the most selfless people I would ever come in contact with.

It was around that time that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox asked their supporters on the outside to include another inmate as part of their case: Robert “King” Wilkerson, who was also a member of the Angola Black Panthers and was also interned in solitary on equally dubious charges. As their supporters we obliged and The Angola Two were re-christened The Angola Three. We kept spreading the word wherever and whenever we could, but the three men remained in solitary in Angola.

One cold February day in Austin in 2001, Scott Fleming again called me from Oakland and told me I needed to get ahold of a camera and get myself to Louisiana as quickly as possible because it looked as if Wilkerson’s conviction was about to be overturned. I borrowed a Sony XL-1 video camera from Isaac Mathes, a film school buddy, and drove to Saint Francisville, the home of Angola Prison.

That day is forever burned into my synapses, as a small group of supporters waited outside the prison gates for several hours on a warm Louisiana winter day, and then we watched as the doors of Angola Prison slid open and Robert “King” Wilkerson walked out to meet us after spending 29 years in solitary confinement.

There followed a massive “Second Line” street party in New Orleans, led by The Soul Rebels Brass Band, and we all danced in the streets and sang “King is free!” until our voices were hoarse. I drove back to Austin and cut a short film from the footage called “King Is Free”, and it remains the most widely-viewed piece that I have ever produced. King himself did not waste a minute upon his release but immediately threw himself into speaking and organizing about The Angola Three, and he and I remain close friends to this day.

That same year, 2001, it felt to many of us that the situation of prisoners in the U.S. was finally reaching a critical mass of popular awareness. In March of that year governor Pat Quinn of Illinois abolished that state’s death penalty after courts threw out the death sentences of 13 condemned men. Nationwide it seemed that the idea of having more people behind bars for non-violent offences than for violent ones was beginning to prompt a much-needed re-thinking of the country’s draconian sentencing guidelines, particularly those having to do with the ongoing “War On Drugs”, which was widely seen as little more than an abject failure on its own terms: there were now more prisoners than ever in U.S. prisons and yet drugs were more available than ever before. What, it was finally being asked, was the point?

And then came the events of September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent march to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The “War On Drugs” took a back seat to the “War On Terror”, and the issues of the nation’s prisons and prisoners were forgotten, for the moment it seemed, as the government launched into another round of attacks against civil liberties in the name of preserving “freedom.”

And Wallace and Woodfox remained in solitary confinement in Angola Prison. We all continued trying to keep the case in the public eye. And in that sense The Angola Three support committee was very, very lucky because more people kept joining in to help the cause.

In 2002, Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop chain of stores, took an interest in the case, and began running ads about the Angola Three, and eventually would pay for legal fees on Woodfox and Wallace’s continued appeals.

Of the men in the Angola Three, I always felt that Herman was The Joker. Brash and talkative, his recourse throughout his decades of imprisonment was always his never-failing sense of humor. And so it didn’t surprise me to hear in 2003 that he had began a collaboration with an artist named Jackie Sumell called “Herman’s House” in which he described his spacious, comfortable ideal home, in stark contrast to the 6-foot by 9-foot cell that he had lived in for three decades. Sumell made computer-drawings and scale models of Herman’s dream house, and presented it as an art installation in galleries around the world, always using it as a way to talk about the Angola Three and prisoners in the United States. Herman said that the project, “helps me to maintain what little sanity I have left, to maintain my humanity and dignity.”

In 2010, director Vadim Jean produced a feature documentary about the Angola Three called “In The Land Of The Free”, which was narrated by Samuel Jackson.

It seemed like prisons and prisoners in the U.S. were, once again, entering the public discourse. The government’s continued steamrolling of civil rights under The Patriot Act, coupled with the economic depression, was causing people to question the number of incarcerated people in the country. Perhaps the most visible example of this was that in July 2011 prisoners who were being held in solitary confinement in California’s notorious Pelican Bay Prison called a truce between prison gangs and organized a state-wide hunger strike to draw attention to their plight. At its peak it involved 6,600 men in 13 jails, and they followed it with a second two months later, and then another in July 2013 that involved over 30,000 inmates.

In 2013, Angad Bhalla directed a film for PBS about Wallace and Sumels’ artistic collaboration called “Herman’s House”, which was broadcast nationally in July.

In June of 2013, Herman Wallace was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. His medical attention in Louisiana’s prison system was hardly adequate, and by the time his illness was discovered it was unclear just how much longer he would have to live. His lawyers and supporters appealed for a compassionate release on medical grounds and as expected the state refused. After months of waiting, and with Wallace’s condition deteriorating daily, on October 1st, 2013 a federal judge overturned Wallace’s original conviction, making him a free man, and his supporters arranged a room in a private house with medical facilities in New Orleans to receive him.

But at the eleventh hour the state of Louisiana once again showed its true, brutal, racist colors as the East Baton Rouge District Attorney sought a court order blocking Wallace’s release. With an ambulance waiting outside the prison hospital to take him to New Orleans, a standoff ensued over the custody of a weak, terminally ill, 71-year-old man who had spent the last 41 years in solitary confinement. When Ed Pilkington of the U.K. Guardian described it as a “gruesome legal battle” he was making an understatement. There was an almost awe-inspiring clarity to the sheer inhumanity, and total absence of compassion, being displayed by the prosecutors in Baton Rouge. It was as if they were reminding us: lest you forget who you are dealing with. Maybe Americans should be reminded of this more often.

But after several hours of legal wrangling the D.A. backed down and Herman was finally released from prison and driven to New Orleans. And as luck, or coincidence, or New Orleans magic would have it the house that his supporters had prepared for him happened to be on General Taylor Street in the Twelfth Ward – just one block from the very house that Herman Wallace and his eight siblings had grown up in back in the 1950’s. As I boarded a plane in San Francisco to fly New Orleans I couldn’t help but think that wheels were turning and circles coming closed, and in some way Herman the Joker was making sure that everything was lining up just the way he wanted it to.

And now he was free, although he was confined to bed. The state of Louisiana made one last ugly move and re-indicted Wallace just two days after he was released and we all panicked for a few hours, thinking that police cruisers would be descending upon the house at any moment to drag Herman back to prison. It turned out to have likely been little more than the D.A. trying to save political face, but it was a last insulting “parting shot” from the authorities.

In any event, Herman Wallace only lived for another twelve hours or so after that.  The sun was rising over New Orleans when he died at around seven thirty a.m. the next day, peacefully and in his sleep. I like to think that in his own way he was “hauling up the morning” as he left us, and the last words he spoke were, “I love you all.”

I’m at a loss as to what to say about a man whose life was stolen from him, except to remember that one should always pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. I do want to say this though: it is important to remember that the situation of prisoners in the United States is not merely a cluster of cases similar to The Angola Three. In other words what we have is not a group of “bad apples” or “flaws” in the U.S. penal system; it has as much to do with social control and endemic racism as it does with the whims of even the most deranged Louisiana district attorneys. It’s a subject that must be unpacked in a book (or several books) rather than in a single article, and I encourage the interested reader to pursue the resources I have referenced below. There are on a given day around 80,000 people in solitary confinement in United States prisons but they are just one part, albeit a particularly awful one, of a much larger and more insidious system that has, in the words of the incarcerated organizers of the California prison hunger strike, created a “prisoner class” in the U.S. This is not a problem that is simply going to vanish, and is one that will have profound effects upon society for decades to come.

They say that a prisoner’s biggest fear is of being forgotten. Maybe our responsibility as a society is to remember that we can’t simply continue on with a country that has so many incarcerated people, and begin to address real prison reform, and as a nation decide that burying people alive is no sort of solution to societal woes.

David Martinez is a writer and filmmaker based in San Francisco. His most recent film is Autumn Sun: A Story About Occupy Oakland and it may be viewed here:

He may be reached at:

For more on prisons and prisoners in the United States, here are some good resources:

The Herman’s House Project:

The Herman’s House Film:


Lockdown America by Christian Parenti

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Gilmore

Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege by Will Potter

From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of a Black Panther by Robert “King” Wilkerson

Showdown In Desire: The Black Panthers Take A Stand In New Orleans by Orissa Arend (about the New Orleans Black Panthers)


Solitary Watch

The Sentencing Project

Critical Resistance


In The Land Of The Free directed by Vadim Jean

Safety Orange directed by James Davis and Juliana Fredman:

On “The Act Of Killing”

August 10, 2013

Note: I have not seen “The Act Of Killing” yet! Of course I am incredibly interested to see it, especially as I spent time in Indonesia in 2002-3, working on a film about the Achenese independence movement.

For those who don’t know, in 1965-1966 in Indonesia there was a wholesale slaughter of anyone thought to be associated with the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI. Estimates range from 500,000 to more as far as how many were killed, and this unfathomably barbaric “act of killing” helped to usher in the 30-year rule of the dictator Suharto.

The most insane part of this story is that for over forty years no one  has really ever been named, much less held accountable, as being responsible for these atrocities. Obviously a massacre on this scale involved the Indonesian military and obviously Suharto had something to do with it, but nothing, and I mean nothing, was ever done to find out who did the deed, and more importantly: whose orders were they following when they coldly executed over half a million people in less than a year? In one sense it is similar to Argentina’s “disappeared”: both were cases of mass murder in the service of The Cold War, brutal slayings that were swept under the rug in the name of battling Communism, and in each country they became the respective nation’s national shame.

And now director Joshua Oppenheimer has made a film about what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66, and somehow he tracked down and utilized the actual perpetrators of the killings, who both re-anact and try and explain their actions. I can’t say any more until I see the film, and in case you haven’t seen it, here is the trailer:

And this is an interview with Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who co-produced the film.

Having watched these short pieces about the “The Act Of Killing”, I do want to add one point: smiling is not culturally synonymous all over the world. Or to put it another way (and anyone out there who knows better than I, feel free to correct me), smiling in Indonesian society does not mean the same as in the United States. Indonesians smile when they do just about anything, and it does not at all mean that they are enjoying the task at hand. And when one sees men describing their role in the massacres of the PKI, the fact that they are smiling does not mean that they are psychotic.

Anyways, as I said, I am looking forward to seeing the film, as much as anyone can look forward to seeing a movie about such a horrific topic. In any event I am glad the subject matter is getting attention, today as the U.S. rushes into yet another “intervention”, and the American Right continues to glamorize The Cold War as something that was “won”. If you lived in many places in the world, like Indonesia, there was no win or lose: murder or dictatorship were your only choices.

Time-Lapse Of Protests

August 1, 2013

This isn’t exactly, completely accurate, but is still fascinating to watch. It’s a time-lapse of all the protests in the world from 1979 until now.

It doesn’t show the politics of each protest, and so Tea Party rallies are included alongside Occupy actions. And:

“A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn’t specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).”

It’s still worth a look though.

Photographs Of Prisons And Prisoners

July 1, 2013

This is a very interesting website, containing images of prisons and incarceration throughout the world and throughout history. The above photograph is from an artist’s project of documenting a women’s prison in Albania. also, check out these 1950’s Brooklyn mugshots:

This is all part of what I sincerely hope is a resurgence of political interest in the U.S. prison population, currently the highest in the world. For more information about the warehousing of millions of human beings in The American Gulag, the Prison Activist Resource Center is a good place to start.

The National Security Administration Is Building The Country’s Biggest Spy Center. Go Figure.

June 29, 2013

The N.S.A., who are currently among the scarier of our security services, are constructing a massive complex in Utah that will basically be a giant bank of hard drives to store all of the data that they vacuum up on a daily basis. Wired magazine did an excellent story on it, well worth reading. And after you do so try not to start looking over your shoulder every five minutes.

San Francisco Is An Archipelago?

April 10, 2013

What happens if the sea levels rise oh, say, twenty feet or so in the next fifty years? As this excellent faux-news report from 2072 A.D. explains, SF would be an archipelago of small islands.