Polunsky Unit/Death Row, Livingstion, TX
November 1993 was the beginning of what could be called “The Texas Death Row Occupy Movement.” A plan of action was planned for years by myself and other Texas Death Row inmates to protest an execution date if one was set for certain individuals, namely John “Jazz” Barefield Bey, Sam Miguel, Emerson “Young Lion” Rudd and Ponchai “Kamau” Wilkerson.
Schooled in the revolutionary teaching of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, all of us were committed to protesting an execution in the way deemed best for us as we saw it. Any action taken by us in protest would be justifiable self-defense. After all, the State of Texas would literally be trying to kill us! However, before any one of us received an execution date, another inmate would take the vanguard and protest his execution. He would be gassed. A team of guards would forcibly extract him from his cell. Beat him. Then take him to the death house in Huntsville, Texas. The name of the first was Desmond “Lil’ Dez” Jennings and he wouldn’t be the last. This happened in the mid-90s.
Over the years, an inmate from outside our group bonded by a pledge to resist/protest an execution would step up. Notably, Shaka Sankofa aka Gary Graham, who vehemently declared his innocence till his last breath. The most daring of those of us to resist/protest was Ponchai “Kamau” Wilkerson. Brother Kamau is famous for his revolutionary practices against those who would seek to end his life. His daring escape attempts. Hostage taking of a guard with inmate Howard “I. D.” Guidry. Smacking the Warden during negotiations to spitting n hand cuff from his mouth even as the poison was pumped into his body to finally take his life.
“I will not participate”
All of the original pledgers are dead, executed by the state of Texas. I am the last. However, my way of protest was inspired by Kevin Cooper.
In October 2005 I had been fasting Ramadan. Seeking the peace of mind and spirit for what I intended to be my stance against my execution. I had listened to Democracy, Now! Host Amy Goodman had interview Brother Kevin Cooper about the prospect of being killed by the State of California and I remember his saying to the effect that “it’s a sick and twisted practice to expect another human being to participate in his own murder. I will not participate or cooperate…” He described how in California they even expect you to help them find a suitable vein in which to stick you with the needle! I agreed with Brother Kevin Cooper whole heartedly. My course was set. I’d not do anything violent. I’d not try to be provocative. But, I would not participate. I would do non-violent resistance.
Most of the previous efforts at resistance had been violent, with participants being gassed and beaten. However, there had been a few notable exceptions. Todd Willingham knelt down and refused to be put in the execution van to be taken to the death house. Similarly, David Harris. But they did their protest of resistance on the day of their own execution, as did everyone else. I decided that I would have my last visits at least a month prior and dedicate at least a month to non-violent resistance of my execution date. And that’s what I did.
On November 19, 2005, coming back from a legal visit, I “occupied” and sat down in the area outside of visitation. I was picked up, placed on a wheeled gurney bed and taken back to my cell. The day before, Rob Will of the DRIVE movement got gassed in solidarity protest. He knew what I’d do.
After my protest, Gabriel Gonzales and Kenneth Foster–both of whom are no longer on Death Row–would follow Rob Will’s example. I got gassed after “occupying” the day rooms and refusing to be racked up. Robert Woodard would hang a sheet banner in the day room protesting executions and specifically my execution date. He was taken to the disciplinary wing. Randy Arroyo and Daniel Simpson would join in as woud Reginald Blantton. All protesting execution dates and the inhuman conditions we were forced to live under.
Our “occupy” movement would last for the better part of a year, even after I received a stay. Day rooms would be “occupied,” Hallways. Medical. Disciplinary hearings. The food slots and showers. Non-violently, changes would occur. For the better part of a year, other inmates would be inspired to protest their execution dates, like Tommy Hughes, Marion Dudley and Lamont Reese, whose actions would make the CNBC news. We declared our lives–all lives–have value. Our lives–all lives–have worth! We stated that. We meant that.
And today I see the same declaration across this nation. As Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kevin Cooper stated in their articles in the Occupied Oakland Tribune news lette: Don’t forget the prisoners! Don’t forget Death Row! We’re with you. We support you! We are also the 99%, as we declared in protest back here on Death Row.
Our lives–all lives–have value! Our lives–all lives–have worth! We stand with you in that declaration.
Always, In strength and In Spirit!
Tony E. Ford