There is an amazing history of “radical kinship” between the Black and Palestinian prisoners experience (as evidenced by a new exhibit called “George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine” which includes letter of solidarity between Palestinian and American prisoners among other artifacts). Some of the same spirit that motivated this exhibit was why I reached out to Black prisoners in the U.S., and invited them to read and respond to “The Hour of Sunlight“–the book I co-authored with my brother and former colleague Sami Al Jundi, who spent 10 years in an Israeli prison for militant anti-occupation activities as a teenager. Below is the response from Kenneth Foster Jr, previously on Texas death row, now serving a life sentence without parole:
“First and foremost, I have read “Sunlight” and it’s a fabulous book. It was really touching for me in a lot of ways. Mainly from the prisoner perspective, but also just through the literary expression of the struggle and familyhood. I greatly enjoyed it.
I have already begun working on the questions (that you sent me.) However, I just don’t feel my answers are adequate. I felt this need to go into a greater dialog. This reminds of this “dissertation” of sorts that I wrote about the Irish struggle for independence from the British. The book emphasized great meaning to the Irish people learning the language. It creates identity. And bond. And as descendants of Africans, we know the language is the first thing to go when an oppressor is seeking to subdue a people. So, I spoke about how Black leaders tried to institute Swahili, but it didn’t catch. I wrote about the unfortunate nature of that and how I think it greatly affected our position here in this country. When I get on books like this it instills that kind of feeling in me.
The reality of my life is that I grew up in prison. I came to prison in 1997 at the age of 20. At the time of this writing I am 39, which means in 1 more year I will have spent the equal amount of time inside that I did outside.
Therefore, any experience that I shared with Sami Al Jundi has been that of a prisoner of conscience. While Sami’s motivations were different from mine–his being politically motivated and mine being criminally motivated–we shared one similar thing entering prison: REGRET! I, too, suffered “the nightmares within nightmares” for the decisions I made. And in the same token, while the nightmares continued, “it’s done. I instructed my brain to convince the rest of me. It’s time to turn the page.”
That is often the hardest part about prison and conversion–changing. There is an enlightenment that falls upon a chosen few of us, and once that page is turned there is no turning back. It’s these ties that bind ones like Sami and I. He, as I, realized–“I had the power to determine the size of my universe.”
Then, the most emotional thing that stood out to me was the criticism and aggression that Sami faced as he sought to be a peacemaker. For one who has had the street gang experience, and then grown out of it, I can deeply relate to those that seek to change the ways of their life. I have come to see (personally and educationally) that it usually takes something tragic in one’s life to turn that page. Sami’s was a bomb and prison. Mine was death row. Like Sami, “I came to realize that war is a holocaust for all human beings.”
From our different sides of the world, Sami and I now fight for the beauty that we KNOW resides within humanity, and it is summed up well in the story of Mazdak and Mani:
“Humans have both a dark side and a light side. But they don’t coexist separately, like oil and water; they’re mixed together like water and wine. You can’t distinguish them easily. It is only through our actions that we can hope to free our light. Our responsibility is to behave in ways that will help us find our light. WE HAVE TO SRVE THE LIGHT.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” followed by American lawyer Clarence Darrow– “As long as the world shall last there will be wrong, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.”
There’s two things the Palestinians and Blacks in America have in common–they are targeted and they are oppressed. Both are a people who struggle for identity and a place to call home without attack. Both are a people who roots in a land and have been repeatedly sought for uprooting.
Such targeting comes with many effects–mentally, physically, and spiritually. For a people to be under constant bombardment can not only alter the natural state of one’s personality, but will also put a people in a state of desperation. These are the pains of wanting to be heard. Therefore, we see the misdirected and tainted actions of suicide bombers in the East and gang violence in the West. However, they are actions that can be changed with the efforts of peace, love and respect.
When those things are lacking, human beings turn from the best that is within them and tap into the worst. In both cases you have a people that face off against entities that seek to subjugate them. And what is more desirable than the pursuit of happiness? For Biblical believers–Muslims, Jews, and Gentiles alike–it’s said from the beginning to “Be fruitful and multiply.” It’s in people’s genetics to want to thrive. And as long as the core of a people’s identity, integrity and dignity is under attacked we shall wallow in the annals of destruction and never prosperity.
There is most definitely a history of organized activities inside U.S. prisoners, unfortunately, it is one that was waned over the years due to token concessions that have been gained inside and outside the walls.
The 60’s and the 70’s gave birth to prison movements as the Black Power and Civil Rights movements were going at full steam. Along with that came cultural education. As concessions grew, the passion for advancing these struggles (culturally and politically) decreased. However, they do still exist across this land. From state to state it may vary, because each state in the U.S. has its own history of oppression and resistance. Therefore, the level of activism and outside support networks differ. But, I feel confident in saying that we have lost the steam that the trendsetters had.
What will always separate the level of struggle between Palestinian and American prisoners is the Palestinian people identify as ONE people; just as the Irish people who founded the IRA did when fighting for independence against the British. Identity is the soul of a people’s struggle. This will always be the greatest ailment for American prisoners, because American prisoners are so multi-cultured, therefore the Rights I seek may not be neighbor’s want/need. Only when the fingers on the hand close into a fist can a hard blow be struck. Until then any strike will be mediocre at best.
However, there is always the calling to HUMAN Rights. When we move past religion, sexual preferences, etc, we all have a desire, and Right, to be free of abuse and afforded the opportunity to better our lives, be it inside or out. The men of influence inside American prisons are not tapping into that the way Palestinian prisoners did when they held large weekly meetings in the courtyard for all the movements of the PLO. If every prison group focused on the Universal Rights due to us all we would be a force to be reckoned with.
While I don’t know the state of organization currently in prisons for Palestinian political prisoners, I do know that they–like the Irish Republic prisoners–possess the blueprint to righteous struggle and it’s something American prisoners could learn from very much!