The Texas Death Row Occupy Movement


by Tony Egbuna Ford

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.

In Solidarity.

Always, In strength and In Spirit!

Tony E. Ford

This letter from was sent to the Occupied Oakland Tribune after Tony received a copy of their prisoner solidarity issue. He is on Death Row in Livingston, Texas.

The SAFE California Act: ‘No Thank You’

By Kevin Cooper

I have been asked what I think about “The SAFE California Act,” which is being pushed as a real alternative to this state’s death penalty. I have been asked by activists, death row inmates, and certain family members of death row inmates. I have also asked myself this same question. After all, it is our future which is being voted on by the people of California in November 2012.

I must add this. At no time was I, or to my knowledge, any man or woman who resides on death row within this state asked our opinion about the SAFE California Act by the sponsors of this initiative, the people who bank rolled it, or the people who collected signatures in support of it. I wonder why that is? I am personally against this initiative, and I do not support it for a couple different reasons. First and foremost, this ‘Act’ is just another version of the death penalty. We who will be affected by it will still be living in inhumane conditions. We who are on death row will also lose our legal habeas and habeas appeal process that we have and are currently entitled to under the law. So we are in fact taking a step backwards in our ability to challenge our convictions. We are also having to take our fight for our collective human rights to another level. What I mean by this is, Level IV prisons within the State of California are some of the worst prisons in the world! They are worse than death row in the violence that takes place, in the lack of programs, including educational programs, they stay on lockdown, and many families cannot get to these isolated prisons to visit their loved ones. I also look at this through the historical eyes of how people of African descent have been continually locked up within this country. For example, those of us who know the truth about this country’s history, and acknowledge this truth have to admit the following . . .

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law freeing the Slaves, he did not free any person who was duly convicted of a crime. He left them in Slave status. There has never been an amendment to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in order to change this Constitution. Therefore, here in the 21st Century, every Man, Woman, and Child who has been duly convicted of a crime is still a Slave, and is living in the same status as a Slave. What does this have to do with the SAFE California Act? This 21st Century Act requires, just as Slavery did in the 18th and 19th centuries did, that we who are imprisoned under this Act will have to work for basically nothing. Any money that we make, the majority of it will be taken from us against our will and given to the state. Any money that our family, friends, or attorney(s) may give us, money that is not even ours, will not all be given to us, because the majority of it will be given to the state without our permission as well! This is not fair to our families, who are poor people, as we are! “Isn’t taking our families’ and friends’ money and giving it to the state without their permission called theft?” We are expected to live the rest of our natural lives under these conditions. My ancestors had to do (LWOP), life without parole, on the thousands of plantations in this country back in the day. They didn’t like it then, and I ain’t going to like it now!! These modern day prisons are just as nasty and inhumane as the plantations of yesteryear, and just as deadly. The system and the people who run and control them are just as cold hearted, and unforgiving as any plantation owner or overseer. Yet, we are told that times have changed! This lock them up and throw away the key mentality is as old and as cold as this country. If this becomes the law of this state, we cannot expect for it to change, we will be out of sight and out of mind. Whenever that happens, human beings in our situation always have their human rights violated by the powers that be! “Please” don’t get me wrong, as I have my say concerning this SAFE California Act. I am not ‘for’ Capital Punishment either! But, I do know that there has be be a better way to end Capital Punishment within this state than the SAFE California Act.

As a person who reads and studies African American history, I can honestly say to you that this is deja vu, history is repeating itself with this Act. The vast majority of Slaves felt that life on those plantations was a fate worse than death. I wholeheartedly agree, because life within this modern day plantation is too! But, not only are we to spend the rest of our lives living and working in this place called hell, we are going to have to pay for it with our own monies as well! To this, and all else within that SAFE California Act, I say “No Thank You!”

Kevin Cooper was sentenced to death in 1985 and maintains his innocence. In 2008, five federal judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals signed an 82-page dissenting opinion that begins: “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” 565 F.3d 581 He has exhausted all his legal remedies and should the lethal injection litigation settle in California, Kevin is one of the 14 currently in line for imminent execution barring the governor and California Supreme Court granting him a pardon or clemency. Don’t miss the recently released true crime story: “Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper” by J. Patrick O’Connor, editor and publisher of Crime Magazine. Available online through major booksellers.

On Race and Justice: An Apology, An Indictment

by Abby Zimet from Common Dreams

While many people view “Stand Your Ground” laws as today’s symbol for what’s wrong with our criminal justice system, a suggestion we look deeper and further – to the country’s long history of racial bias in jury selection, especially in death penalty cases. Last week, a North Carolina judge vacated the death sentence of Marcus Robinson under the state’s Racial Justice Act citing a “wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection” – the first time racial bias has been rejected as unacceptable since the 25-year-old Supreme Court ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp that such bias is an “inevitable part of our criminal justice system,” and so be it. Meanwhile, the executions – technically legal, but relatively rare – go on, with Texas accounting for over a third of the total. The Economist maps out each one since 1976.