Monday 20 September 2010
Thursday 9 September 2010
Sunday 29 August 2010
In 1969, I was locked up for a robbery I didn't do and, while inside, I joined the Black Panthers. Three years later, an inmate was stabbed to death on my prison block and, because of my politics, the authorities saw a chance to pin it on me. In 2001, I was cleared of this killing but, by then, I had spent 29 years alone in a cell.
It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.
Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.
At times I felt an anguish that is hard to put into words. To live 24/7 in a box, year after year, without the possibility of parole, probation or the suspension of sentence is a terrible thing to endure.
I was kept in the closed cell restricted (CCR) wing of the penitentiary, which is also known as Angola, after the slave plantation that was on the site prior to the prison. Three times a week I was let out for an hour to go to the exercise yard, where I was kept separate from other prisoners by razor wire.
The wardens tried to discourage us from talking, but we defied them. We were beaten up and prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Whenever I was disciplined, it was for talking. I didn't care, I refused to let them dehumanise me.
The worst punishment was the "cold box", our name for the cell within Camp J. It was down a long hallway through three sets of secure doors, and when they pushed me inside, the isolation was total. They would keep me there for a month, in blocks of 10 days, shoving food through a slot in the door. I went for days without speaking to anyone. That kind of sensory deprivation was torture for me – to survive I knew I had to keep my mind active.
One pastime I had was smuggling out praline candies that I made on my cell floor. I traded tobacco to get the ingredients of sugar, peanuts and powdered milk. I made them using a cold drink can for a pot and burning toilet paper to melt sugar.
Another thing I did was to fold up toilet paper into squares and stick them to the floor with toothpaste to make a chessboard. I would call out moves to other inmates. When we were in nearby cells I played with Herman Wallace or Albert Woodfox. Like me, they were Black Panthers kept in solitary because they were seen as a threat. They had started a chapter of the Panthers, which had helped mobilise inmates to curb some of the abuse going on inside Angola at the time.
They are still in solitary after nearly 38 years – more than any other inmate in the American prison system. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972, but there's a lot of evidence that they're innocent.
Since my conviction was overturned in 2001, I have travelled constantly, educating people about the widespread use of solitary confinement in America. The words of the US Constitution prohibit what is called "cruel and unusual punishment", and yet that phrase could have been written to describe solitary confinement.
When I walked out of Angola, I didn't realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I've found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there. I made a statement when I was released that although I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me. Until Herman and Albert can join me on the outside, I have to make good on that promise.
Via the Guardian
PICTURED: BPCC co-founder Sukant Chandan with Robert King, London, March 2010
Saturday 2 January 2010
Thursday 29 October 2009
Wednesday 28 October 2009
By Lizzie Cocker
property agent Mr Defries, in defence of a squatted building, more info here
In an age when xenophobia and Islamophobia are being stoked
by illegal wars and immigration myths, the need to wrench
hidden realities from history in order to see today's
truths has never been more urgent.
And thanks to the Remembering Olive Collective (ROC)
founded by artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre in 2007, a
bit of this history became available to the public last
week at the Lambeth Archives in Brixton, south London.
Olive Morris, despite her awe-inspiring short life, remains
virtually unknown. And she is one of the greatest unsung
heroes I have ever come across.
My encounter with Morris began when a friend switched on my
radar for forgotten female protagonists. He mentioned a
local project he was doing on four practically unheard-of
women activists who left in their wake cultural, social and
political improvements which are enjoyed not just in London
but in some instances internationally.
Three of these women were black.
With my radar on standby, I stumbled across a website which
asked me if I "remember Olive Morris?" above a picture of a
young black woman smiling with her shades on behind a
No, I thought. I had never heard of Olive Morris.
And as I investigated further it became apparent that my
ignorance was widespread.
Morris died aged just 27 in the 1970s. But she had such an
unshakeable impact on those who knew her that many of the
people with memories, documents, photographs and letters
relating to this young woman responded to ROC's calls to
make her story a matter of public record.
As a tireless campaigner for black women, a socialist and
an internationalist, Morris dedicated herself to fighting
injustice wherever she saw it.
One of the most vivid examples was in 1969 when police
arrested a Nigerian diplomat in Brixton as he stepped out
of his Mercedes.
The police were so stunned to see a black man with such a
flashy car that their reflex was to treat him as a criminal
who had stolen it.
Crowds gathered round gaping as the police began to beat
A 17-year-old Olive struggled through the spectators and
physically tried to stop the attack.
She was flung down and subjected to black police boots
kicking her in her breasts. She was stripped naked and told
as the blows kept on coming: "This is the right colour for
One Nigerian student wrote in tribute to her upon her
death: "It is reasonable to expect that Olive Morris's
heroism will be immortalised alongside such black
luminaries like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and many others
who were proud to be black."
But despite this ROC found while putting the jigsaw of her
life story together that this woman remained only in the
memories of those whose lives had crossed hers.
So vivid were the memories that these pieces of the jigsaw
have now found an eternal home in the archives.
As I hungrily sifted through them trying to complete my own
puzzle, it was Morris's typewritten words that climbed out
of the papers desperate to deliver the answers for problems
we continue to face today.
A graduate in social sciences from Manchester University,
Morris wrote numerous essays on Marxism, race and class. As
a Brixton Black Panther, part and parcel of her membership
was to attend lessons in Leninism and Marxism.
This education and her own activism influenced her
relationship with progressive movements and she ultimately
became frustrated with the British left, which she
described as having "more in common with the ruling class
and royalty than with fellow workers.
"Today increasingly the British working class is faced with
a choice either to defend the 'national interest' or throw
their lot in with the oppressed people of the Third World.
"The most immediate way in which this can be done is for
them to support the struggle of the Third World people in
this country," she argued.
Morris sympathised with Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones
who was poorly treated by the Communist Party, which failed
to acknowledge her far-reaching capabilities and consigned
her to an administrative role, and Grunwick striker Jayaben
Desai who was virtually abandoned by trade unions.
She became disillusioned by institutions for the working
class, which instinctively she would have had the most
natural allegiance with.
"We have used the great British tradition of trade unionism
to try and further our cause for equality and justice, but
on countless occasions we have found that the movement does
one thing for white workers and another for black workers,"
"White workers have time and time again refused to give our
unions recognition, they have crossed our picket lines for
racist reasons, they have organised against our
organisation in the trade unions.
"Take for instance STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd)
where white trade unionists and union officials - with
exception of a few - put skin colour before the overall
interest of the proletariat and often resorted to physical
violence against their black fellow workers."
Morris was exasperated by what she saw as an inherent
self-interest that blocked mainly white apparently
progressive groups from seeing where the real battles
needed to be fought. She lambasted the Anti Nazi League
"trendies" for busying themselves with "shouting their
empty phrase of 'black and white unite and fight'."
Empty, she said, "because there was no sound basis on which
such unity could be built."
The ANL, she continued, has "become one big carnival
jamboree of political confusion for the middle class.
"It doesn't raise the political questions. It buries them
in the name of 'broadness'."
Morris highlighted that the National Front, which the ANL
directed all its enthusiasm into fighting, was merely a
symptom and not a cause of the racist ideologies and
practices which prevailed in every sector of society.
As the black groups Morris worked with organised to fight
oppression on all levels - running supplementary schools,
clubs and recreational facilities, clubbing together to buy
houses, striking, organising pickets and circulating
petitions - she urged people truly dedicated to fighting
racism to confront the issues which affect black people's
lives on a daily basis in schools, the police, local
government and even trade unions.
"Not a single problem associated with racialism,
unemployment, police violence and homelessness can be
settled by 'rocking' against the fascists, the police or
the army," she said.
"The fight against racism and fascism is completely bound
up with the fight to overthrow capitalism, the system that
The symptomatic BNP and other far-right organisations are
rearing their ugly heads above the fertile ground laid by a
political framework which has perpetuated the
criminalisation, social immobility and isolation of black
and ethnic minorities.
But black history has a lesson for the left.
As long as support is only forthcoming when racism is so
visible that it can no longer be ignored rather than being
part of the daily battles against all discrimination that
permeates society, the struggle to create equal conditions
for everyone will keep taking one step forward and 10 steps
To get a glimpse into the rest of Olive's life visit
rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com or visit the
collection at the Lambeth Archives in the Minet Library,
52 Knatchbull Road, London SE5 9QY
Olive Elaine Morris
Born in 1952 in Jamaica and moved with her family to
Britain aged nine
Died of cancer in 1979
Travelled to China, north Africa, Ireland and Spain
A council building in Lambeth bears her name
Groups she cofounded or worked with:
The Black Panther Movement (later the Black Workers Group),
Brixton Black Women's Group
The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent
Manchester Black Womens Co-operative
National Co-ordinating Committee of Overseas Students
Black Womens Mutual Aid Group
Brixton Law Centre
The squatter movement
Tuesday 6 January 2009
Thanks to the Black Panther Alumni for putting page 16 of the Panther Legacy magazine published by the BPCC, and available from us (see previous posts about how to get a copy/copies).
See the link for the page, which features the picture above and also this quote from Brother Huey:
"We realize that some people who happen to be Jewish and who support Israel will use the Black Panther Party’s position that is against imperialism and against the agents of the imperialist as an attack of anti-Semitism. We think that is a backbiting racist underhanded tactic and we will treat it as such. We have respect for all people, and we have respect for the right of any people to exist. So we want the Palestinian people and the Jewish people to live in harmony together. We support the Palestinian’s just struggle for liberation one hundred percent. We will go on doing this, and we would like for all of the progressive people of the world to join our ranks in order to make a world in which all people can live."
(On the Middle East, Huey Newton)