July 29, 2010

Things I Didn't Know About Black America: Supermax

I grew up in a house with three sets of encyclopedias, which, of course, means, today, I am a compulsive researcher.

Or, as one of my friends from the all-girl's private school around the corner from my all-boy's private school once said, "You're such a little bibliophile."

Whenever I learn about something new that I can't really talk about in some detail and great length, the first thing I do is look it up on Wikipedia.

But through an odd confluence of inputs over the last few days, I find myself knee deep in the recent history of African Americans here in these United States.  So, here's the first in a series of web research diversions into my own cultural & ethnic history...
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I was watching Zombieland, and was wondering what else Woody Harrelson was up to as a part of his recent career resurgence.  Cue wikipedia - turns out Woody's dad was a contract killer who died in supermax prison on conviction for taking out a Federal judge and occasionally bragged that he was one of the dudes on the grassy knoll who helped take out JFK.

Crazy, right?

Realizing that I didn't really know what constituted a supermax prison (in short, solitary confinement for everybody 23 hours out of the day and no interaction with any other prisoners), I followed the links to to ADX Florence, the only supermax federal penitentiary.  And the current inmate list reads like a who's who of enemies of the state: FBI double agent Robert Hansen; the shoe bomber; the unabomber; the 1996 Olympic park bomber; Oklahoma City accomplice Terry Nichols; the guy who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing; H. Rap Brown.

H. Rap Brown?!?

Wasn't he supposed to be one of the heroes of the civil rights movement?  Shows how little I know, right?

Cue wikipedia again.

Turns out the brother, one of the founding fathers of the original Black Panther Party for Self Defense (yes, let's get the full name right, folks), had converted to Islam and attempted to become an arbiter of peace of sorts.... until two cops got shot up trying to serve him an arrest warrant (one died) and he fled the scene in a bullet-ridden Mercedes.

In reading this, I realized I'd confused him with Eldridge Cleaver.  Probably because they'd both written books about being Black and radical in America in the 1960's (Brown's "Die, Nigger, Die" and Cleaver's "Soul On Ice").  Honestly, I only really knew about them from Mario Van Peebles' movie "Panther".  Oddly enough, Cleaver had become a born-again Christian and a right wing Republican in his old age before he died.  Brown, for his part, had originally been involved with SNCC - the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee - who helped organize the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and the March on Washington, before interference from law enforcement and increasing threats of violence led to a schism in the group.  They had to change their name because, as one leader said at the time "I don't know how much longer we can stay nonviolent.

But, still: a supermax prison?  That guy is still considered an enemy of the state on the level of a traitorous enemy agent and Al Qaeda operatives?  Really?

More to come on these.  In the meantime, if you're not familiar with the history of SNCC, The Panthers, and the crazy political climate of the late 60's & early '70's, you may want to check some of these out:

Panther [VHS]Soul on IceDie Nigger Die!: A Political Autobiography of Jamil Abdullah al-Amin
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