|Watani Stiner, escapo de la prisión de San Quentin en 1974 y se refugió primero en de experiencia personal. En 1974, me escape de la prisión de San Quentin, y huí del país a Guyana en Suramérica. dinero para libros o profesores, sucumbió.|
| Guyana en Suramérica y posteriormente en Suriname. Pasó algunos días felices antes de que el pequeño país sudamericano se hundiera en un profunda crisis económica y social. La extrema pobreza, la corrupción y la falta de oportunidades para sus hijos lo llevaron a entregarse a Estados Unidos para volver a ser encarcelado. Basado en su experiencia personal, Stainer comparte su opinión y perspectiva sobre la crisis migratoria que esta viviendo Estados Unidos y de las razones detrás del éxodo de miles de familias que arriesgan su seguridad y la vida de sus hijos con la única meta de darles una mejor vida. Watani fue puesto en libertad en abril del 2011. En estos tiempos, un profundo miedo, junto a la ignorancia y la incertidumbre están alimentando el debate nacional sobre la migración –legal o indocumentada– de miles de personas a Estados Unidos.|
Día a día, cientos de familias inmigrantes, con niños de varias edades, cruzan la frontera con la esperanza de ser aceptados e iniciar una nueva vida en Estados Unidos. Cualquiera que sea el motivo por el Casi inmediatamente a mi llegada a Georgetown, la capital de Guyana, me uní a la creciente comunidad de refugiados. En 1976, Guyana empezó a experimentar un severo declive económico. La corrupción, falta de empleo, y falta de enseres básicos llevaron al país a un desorden político. Los trabajadores azucareros, quienes eran mayormente segmentos de este Indico de la sociedad guyanesa, se cia en el país escalaba y la economía se deteriorabaaúnmás. En 1993, mi familia estaba viviendo en una casa de ramas pequeña sin electricidad o agua potable, cosechando verduras para la venta y vendiendo yerbas medicinales y café. Comencé a preocuparme por la salud y el futuro de mis hijos. Reflexionaba en maneras de cómo traer a mis hijos a los Estados Unidos. Pero como un fugitivo, no podía simplemente mover a mi familia fuera del país y tampoco quería dejarlos allí. ¿Mi libertad valía el bienestar de mis hijos? La situación en Suriname se estaba volviendo más desesperante cada día. Después de convencer a mi esposa de que entregandome a la justicia aseguraría una mejor vida para nuestros hijos, me entregué a la embajada de los Estados Unidos en Paramaribo. Desesperado y temeroso, tenía que sacar a mis hijos fuera del país. Eventualmente a ellos se les permitió entrar a los Estados Unidos. Mientras que algunos de mis hijos sacaron provecho, otros batallaron. Unonun casabecuálseráel futuro de las decisiones que uno tome, pero para mí la esperanza de un mejor futuro fue mucho mejor que no tener ninguna.
Estoy de regreso en la prisión, y solamente porque amo a mis hijos más que lo que odio mi encarcelamiento. Los padres de esos jóvenes están haciendo viajes muy peligrosos en busca de asilo en los Estados Unidos tiene una cosa en mente, una cosa que nos mueve a todos los padresla sobrevivencia y seguridad de nuestro hijos. Ningún pensamiento o emoción es más poderosa que eso.
For nearly three years, since March of 2013, I have enjoyed contributing to the San Quentin News with my OG’s Perspective column, glad to let my son Larry Jr. pinch-hit occasionally. But with this column my time in the lineup comes to an end. When I paroled from San Quentin a year ago I promised editor in chief Arnulfo Garcia that I would continue for a year. That year has ended. Arnulfo likes to encourage the newspaper staff to “move forward.” That’s what I’m going to do, with a focus on my family that is so dear to me and to completion of my memoir. As you can see by the theme of my recent presentation to the men at San Quentin and my last regular column, printed below, I believe that family is an essential part of life. The restrictive terms of my release from prison will soon be eased and I will be able to connect more easily with those children and grandchildren that I cherish. I will also be able to get more involved in various social justice issues that interest me in my community. As I leave the pages of the SQ News I want to thank all those involved for the chance to have my say. If the readers and SQ News staff would allow, I would still like to be able to submit articles on an occasional basis as important issues arise and that I feel passionate to speak to.
LESS THAN A YEAR AGO, I was a California state prisoner serving a life sentence. And although I spent a total of 26 years behind these walls of San Quentin, the last time I actually walked the streets of this country as a “free” man (prior to January of this year) was 1969…. That was 47 years ago.
Now we certainly don’t have enough time for me to bore you with details of my whole life-story, so let me just give you a thumbnail sketch of my journey and make one brief observation:
For those of you who don’t know, I escaped from San Quentin in 1974 because my life was in serious danger in prison. I fled the country to South America where I remained an escaped-fugitive for 20 years. In 1994, I made a deal with the state department and voluntarily surrendered to U.S. authorities in exchange for my family being given safe passage to the U.S. I was brought back to San Quentin to serve out the remainder of my life sentence. I realized tonight that I just might be the only person in this country to have successfully escaped from San Quentin and then volunteered to return—not only once but volunteered to come back to this prison twice! Once in 1994, and then again tonight! I just hope they don’t decide to keep me as long as they did the first time. So Lt. Sam Robinson… I’m trusting that you will let me out of here TONIGHT!
For the thousands of fathers who are currently in prison in San Quentin and this country, it is certainly no secret that our children are collateral damage. Yes, sadly but truthfully, and rarely ever acknowledged or discussed by political pundits and policy-makers, millions of children are innocent casualties of our criminal injustice system. It is one of America’s dirtiest little secrets, and a national tragedy.
After being in prison for so many years, separated from the lives of my children (who, by the way, did not get the promised safe passage from the U.S. government until 11 years and almost their entire childhoods had passed…), I had made up my mind that since they had all grown up during my incarceration, I had missed my chance to be fully present in their lives. I actually believed that my children no longer needed me as their father. After all, I had missed practically all their birthdays, their school graduations, family picnics, marriages; and so many holidays have passed without my presence. And most importantly, I had missed my God-given right as a father: the right to lower my voice and strike terror into the hearts of all my daughters’ conniving little boyfriends. Yes, why would my children, after all these years of my absence, need a father now?
Although I was separated from my own children, during my incarceration I have found myself being a surrogate father to so many young prisoners who have also become my surrogate sons. As with any family, some of my sons I scolded because they were hard-headed and difficult to reach, while others would argue with me, repeatedly ask annoying questions, and listen to what I had to say. Yes, there were those I had become disappointed with, and those that made me so very proud of them.
I recall one of my many prison sons who came to prison when he was just 16 years of age, unable to read or write and too embarrassed to admit it. He would not ask for help for fear of being exposed to the other prisoners. Instead, he chose to withdraw, losing all contact and communication with his family. Like a father, I tried to give the love, the time and the patience to this young man that I was denied the opportunity to give to my own children. If I couldn’t be their father, I would try to be somebody’s father. In addition to helping him learn to read and write, I tried to encourage him, build up his sense of self-respect, and help him sort out his own identity as a man. He would later go on to get his G.E.D. and AA degree. When I was paroled, he was taking a correspondence course to obtain his B.A. All he needed was a father and a chance!
If anyone here is holding onto the assumption that your children do not need you anymore because you have been separated from them for so long, or because they are grown, let me assure you that your assumption is far removed from reality: Once I had been released from prison, I first began to experience overwhelming feelings of anxiety. For I now had full access to all of my children: their scars, their hurts, and all their traumas. I was suddenly confronted with the difficult day-to-day experience of being a father. I did not realize it at the time, but prison serves as a kind of buffer to our relationship with our children. It hides from us their nightmares and their dreams.
I quickly found out that my children needed love and healing… they needed both a reassuring embrace from me as well as a silent and sacred space to scream: WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME DADDY? I HATE YOU AND I LOVE YOU TOO! The human heart must ask: Where is this love and who in the hell locked up compassion and justice?
It is my hope that one day you all will find out, just as I have… that no matter how long the state decides to contain us under a broken criminal justice system, our children are the ones who suffer the most. And no matter how many years you are incarcerated, when you are released, you too will find that your sons and daughters still need their dads!
My message to every father in prison, and to all of the fathers here in this room who are not in prison, who feel they are no longer needed in their children’s lives, is to find a way to stay connected (or get connected) to your children. For me (while in prison) I poured most of my time and energy into writing. Writing became my passion, my salvation, and it created a life-line from my heart to my children’s heart. It literally kept me sane and connected to my children during my 21 years of re-incarceration. I continued to write to them each and every day, even when there was no response. Against any temptation to despair, I urge you to find a creative way to stay connected with your children.
In closing, I’d like to leave a message and a poem to all my brothers who are currently locked up behind bars. The message is crucial: Discover and explore your creative passion. If you have children, that passion, whatever it may be, can help provide that difficult and necessary bridge to them, a starting point in building a creative relationship that can sustain all the separation, hurt, anger and loss that is intrinsic to a having a parent in prison.
So, if you would just indulge me, I’d like to share this short poem with you. It is a poem I wrote 10 years ago while a prisoner here at San Quentin. I titled it: I Write For My Children.
My eldest son turns 50 today (October 25th) and I wrote this in his honor. He celebrated by having a big gathering of family and friends which I would have loved to attend. However, as I am still on parole, I was denied permission to travel to Los Angeles for this once-in-a-lifetime celebration.
Some of you may not know that once you get out of prison, you’re not as “free” as you might think. Parole can last from one year to the rest of your life, and it means you continue to be beholden to the state in many ways. For instance, I can’t travel outside of a 50-mile radius from where I am living. I have to submit to a urinalysis test every month even though I have never been convicted of any drug-related charge. I am subject to parole checks where my parole officer comes to inspect how I am living – looking at who I’m hanging out with, assessing my moral rectitude. I have restrictions on who I can or can’t associate with. And if I am found in violation of any of these restrictions, I can be immediately returned to San Quentin.
It was a great disappointment to me to not be able to celebrate Larry’s 50th birthday in person, but I am hopeful that in this coming year I will be granted passes out of the county to visit not only Larry but my other children and grandchildren. There’s no substitute for sitting in a loved one’s kitchen, sharing laughter and conversation in person.
A Toast To My Eldest Son on His 50th Birthday!
Maybe some of you don’t know but shortly after Larry Jr. was born, I gave him the special name Kalima. When he got older, he didn’t like the name because he felt self-conscious about it; he thought it was a little weird. When his mother started calling him “Lee-Lee” that was the end of it. He decided to just go back to using Larry. Kalima in Swahili means: “One with the spoken word.” What I now realize, looking back upon these 50 years, is that what I should have named him is Nzuri Moyo, which means ONE WITH THE BEAUTIFUL HEART!
LIFTING THE GLASS TO BEGIN THE TOAST!
Larry Jr., Nzuri Moyo, first son of Larry Joseph Stiner Sr. (Baba), I am trying to express to you just how proud I am that you were born MY SON, and how much I truly do love you. This cannot be captured in just a few words or expressed in such a limited amount of space and time! I would need a forum more beautiful than a toast and I certainly would need to be there in person. But since this is your 50th birthday and I am moved to say something of significance and value, let me just say this:
You were born during a turbulent period in history… October 25, 1965—born during the heat and fire of revolutionary social change in this country. It is certainly no secret to you that I spent much of my time as your young father focusing on the big picture, on the “revolution,” and not nearly enough time on being a father to you and your brother Shambulia. Imbued with revolutionary zeal and ideals, I left you and went off to save the world! No, I was not there when you and your little brother Shambulia needed a father the most.
By all odds, and verified by so many analyses and statistics, you and your younger brother were doomed to be counted among the casualties of this society. You were predicted to either become addicted to drugs, consumed by the criminal injustice system, or found dead from an unsuspecting bullet. Yes, the social deck was stacked against you. You were certainly predicted to be just another defeated young Black man, cast aside, lost or dying on the uncaring streets of Los Angeles.
However, you are one of the survivors!… But you are more than just a survivor. You are one of the too few success stories in the inner cities of America. I cannot (and won’t pretend to) take credit for the strong Black man that you have become today. You are someone who has defied and defeated all the odds. I am so very proud of you!
Let me name just a few of the ways I see that beautiful heart in action: It was you, my son, who, after many years, opened your heart and embraced a father who was not there when you needed him most. It was you who cared for, comforted, and protected your younger brother Shambulia when your father was thousands of miles away, always lifting him up and nurturing his spirit. And it was you who became a big brother to six younger siblings from South America whom you had never met. Yes, it was you, and your big beautiful heart, who have cared for them, given them loving counsel and unselfish advice. And it was you who unashamedly and uncompromisingly have supported and inspired me throughout my 21 years of re-incarceration. Perhaps rarely said by a father to his son, but I truly do consider you my hero!
Now I would LOVE to attribute some of that strength and smartness and good-looks to genetics. But I can only take credit for half of those. For the rest, I have to lift my glass up to my high school sweetheart, mother of my two sons, and give much praise to the woman who not only contributed her excellent DNA but–much more importantly–had to endure and shoulder all of the responsibility. A strong Black woman who sacrificed so much, and who had to be both rock and pillow during my absence. I want to honor your mother “Hodari,” without whom you could not have become the wonderful human being you have become. And after the wonderful example she set, you went on to choose another strong and extraordinary woman to be your partner in life, Diane. I lift my glass to both of those praiseworthy women.
So, I wish you blessings without number and all good things without end. Happy 50th birthday KALIMA, my Son!
Happy 50th Birthday: But How Far Have We Really Come?
On October 25th of this year, I joined Club 50 as my born day arrived and a large group of family members and friends launched into a soulful rendition of the happy birthday song. It would be the 50th time in my life that this song would be sung in my honor. My father would miss 46 of those times not by choice but rather due to circumstances. You see, prison and exile had kept him away from those he loved as he paid a heavy price for confronting a racist, discriminatory and unjust part of society. So even as I sipped champagne, posed for photos and danced the night away in celebration of my special day, I thought of my father while questioning how far we had really come in terms of racial equality over the five decades of my life.
Born shortly after the Watts revolt in 1965, I came into the world just as the smoke from the burning Los Angeles area buildings cleared and a new type of fire was sparked in the spirit of young men and women who were ready to fight for change. The Black Power movement swept my father up and eventually led to my mother raising my younger brother and I alone as Dad focused almost exclusively on the necessary task of fighting to make things right for our people. That revolutionary struggle landed him in San Quentin State Prison in 1969 with a life sentence and left me growing up wondering if I’d ever see him again. In the years that followed, he would escape from prison, flee the country and start a new family while living for 20 years in exile. In 1994, he would voluntarily surrender and return to prison in an attempt to save that new family from a life of extreme hardship as times grew drastic in the third world country he had made his home. He would serve another 21 years of incarceration in the same prison he had escaped from. That brings me to the milestone year of 2015. During this year, I celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary, my 30th year of employment with the City of Los Angeles and my 50th year on this Earth. And just after turning 50 years old, I found myself being most thankful for my father being released from prison nine months before I blew out the candles on my birthday cake. Yes, it had been a wonderful year full of incredible high points. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like more progress should have been made over the 600 months of my life. How far have we really come in the last 50 years?
The Watts rebellion had been sparked by police officers’ mistreatment of a Black motorist and others at the scene of a traffic stop on August 11, 1965. More than 26 years later, on the night of March 3, 1991, the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King by several White police officers was caught on tape. With every television news station airing the recording, I watched in utter disbelief and anger as the police batons repeatedly slammed against all parts of this man’s defenseless body. As Rodney rolled about in slow motion on the street taking this harsh beating, I noticed there were also many cops standing by and simply watching this battering take place. As if it were just a normal occurrence on the job, no attempt was made to by any of these badge-wearing onlookers to stop this atrocious act. Despite this all being captured by the camera lens of a filming citizen, a jury acquitted the officers who faced charges of assault with a deadly weapon. This verdict set off the L. A. Rebellion on April 29, 1992. Eventually, the National Guard was called in to deal with the uprising just as it had been called in to do the same during the Watts rebellion. And today, more than 20 years after Los Angeles was set ablaze for a second time in protest; we are still seeing police brutality and the use of excessive force time and time again in Black communities. Once more, I ask, how far have we really come in the last 50 years?
As disappointed as I am with the slow process of change, I must still salute those who have sacrificed so much and sought to make a difference. So as others sing happy 50th birthday to me, I deem it necessary to say happy belated 50th birthday to the Watts revolt and to the revolutionary spirit that was born out of that uprising. Fifty years from now, whether I’m blessed enough to blow the candles out on another cake or not, I pray that things will be vastly different for the generations to come.
Though it seems a lot longer, it’s only been nine months since I was released from San Quentin State Prison. Just a few months since I gathered my belongings, said my good-byes and walked eagerly but patiently to be processed from one world into another. I took my final breath of imprisoned air and allowed my ears to surrender the sounds of jangling keys and clanging doors. Twenty-six years of captivity and another 20 spent as an escaped fugitive in exile. I pondered my new reality on the other side of these concrete walls.
I am moving cautiously through a process of re-learning. Unquestionably, after 46 years, this country has changed a lot: people, places and a wide variety of “things.” I’m dazzled by magical cell phone apps and thrilled by the readily available flow of information that can be retrieved from my laptop.
While on the one hand, with the assistance of GPS navigation, it’s relatively impossible to get lost out here anymore, it’s also creepy how easily the government can not only track and find you but can know everything about you. And people don’t even seem to mind. Yet, in spite of all these technological advancements and wonderments, there remains a social reality that seems to have become more pernicious and prevalent—a cruel reality of police brutality, poverty, mass incarceration and gross inequality, yoked with a powerful apathy working as a buffer from the human suffering caused by these conditions.
I was immediately shocked by the saturation of homelessness on the streets of this country. Both young and old roam the streets looking for safety, shelter and a willing handout. I witness constant streams of women, young and old, pushing stuffed carts while hungry and dispirited-looking children try to keep up. I see their hungry faces revealing their thoughts: this is my reality…this is how life is… this is normal.
Now I’m quite aware that this is not the total reality of life on this side of the wall. But it is the one I choose to talk about, one I cannot ignore. The last time I walked the streets of this country as a free man was January 1969. Similar to today, it was a time of great social unrest in this country. In 1969, the year I was sentenced, the prison population in the state of California was less than 25,000. The prison population today has skyrocketed to well over 100,000. And the number of young prisoners is astonishing!
Even though there are now Black faces in high places, including in the White House, and there are more women in the workforce than ever before, poverty, racism and sexism are still very much alive and well. This is the United States of America, the richest and most powerful country in the world. Yet for many of its marginalized citizens, opportunities parallel those in far less developed countries, and those limited opportunities often line the path to incarceration.
Something is not only outrageously wrong with this picture, it has become the acceptable norm among so many of its people: Police abuse, abject poverty and mass incarceration. This country spends six times as much money on incarceration than it does on education. How is it tolerated by so many people that such extreme disparity, not marginalized or hidden but in plain and distasteful sight, can exist?
|“It is this knowledge and depth that are required
in order to move the conversation beyond shallowness”|
I see and long for a genuine racial reconciliation and a genuine accounting for the shockingly glaring disparity in quality of life—which I don’t believe is really comprehended either by the privileged or by the disenfranchised. I long for this reconciliation not just in words, or from some moralistic impulse propelled by a vague notion of “nonviolence,” which is preached mainly to the rage of victims of oppression. I long for a reconciliation forged out of a deeper understanding of the historical threads, a real reckoning with the intentional, violent and state-sanctioned oppression that created the economic and social conditions that we all are confronted with today.
Racism—as an ideology and institutional arrangement, and the desire, the rage, the concerns and the guilt engendered by those on both sides of the issue—is nothing new. And always, there is someone, somewhere who stands up and calls out passionately for racial reconciliation and racial justice. There is often someone pleading with America to engage in “a conversation about race.” This conversation is necessary. It is crucial. All too frequently, however, the conversation doesn’t go very far. I believe this is because in order to really have that conversation, there needs to be a far broader and deeper acknowledgement of the historical devastation that has been thrust upon the once enslaved Africans of this nation.
I’m not only referring to slavery—that human beings were actually kidnapped and brought here against their will—but also a more cohesive understanding about what has been done to these human beings over the last 400 years since we got here. I don’t mean assenting to some disconnected facts about a lynching or a drinking fountain, but grasping that there has been an organized, powerful, pervasive, relentless attack on a certain group of people, perpetrated by their own government and its laws and carried out by its citizens in countless insidious ways.
This is critical to understanding why there is such a wide gap in every area of this society. It speaks to why Africans in America are relegated to certain quarters/sections, into areas of inferior housing and education. Why Katrina was not just a hurricane (if you’re Black), and why so many of us are consumed by the criminal justice system. It also speaks to the reason why a majority of White children are taught and learn in secure environments free of poverty, stray bullets and police brutality.
Learning and deeply understanding the history, learning the depths and the nuance of the pain, and suffering, and difference…. It is this knowledge and depth that are required in order to move the conversation beyond shallowness, because it is necessary for us to move below the surface in order to dismantle the structures weighing upon, shaping, and forming the core of our lives and our interactions.
As long as we stay at the surface level, it is easy to miss or dismiss the enormous magnitude of what has happened around racism in this country, and trying to have a conversation without understanding the magnitude goes nowhere. A conversation to what end? What good is there in our having a conversation if all we are seeking to achieve is a little more pleasant and polite feeling between the races? Is it just about how to live congenially and tolerantly in our inequality? Does the conversation not include action toward structural changes? Does it not hint of redistribution or relinquishing of any resources and privileges? If it’s business as usual, what’s the purpose? After intense exchange of racial experiences, after listening to each other’s racial stories… after we smile and laugh and become friendlier toward each other, what’s next? The same racist institutions are still intact. And we resume our separate lives and wait for the next news flash that proves Black lives do not matter.
Through the grapevine, I heard the question: How many different schools are they going to put her in? This was being asked in response to my wife and I enrolling our daughter, Khyra, into yet another new school. It would be the fourth school she would attend in her nearly 12 years of life. On the surface, we understood why our actions might have been questioned. We knew the importance of stability and consistency in a child’s academic world and we were keenly aware of the negative impact frequently changing schools could have on a kid. Conversely, we also knew our child very well and recognized that settling would have absolutely been the wrong approach. In our case, it was safe to say that our young daughter’s strong appetite for learning worked perfectly with our desire to provide her with the type of educational experience that would benefit her for a lifetime.
“If the school work we are providing is not challenging enough for your daughter, then perhaps this is not the right school for her,” the principal told us. “I have instructed the teachers to stick to the standards set by state of California for each grade level and they will not be going beyond that.”
His words infuriated me. I could not believe this educated man of color would dare look us in the eyes and basically imply he was striving for educational mediocrity for the minority children he was hired to lead. Standing on the grounds of a school located in the heart of the inner-city, I was disappointed and confused. Our daughter and a handful of her classmates were consistently performing at levels much higher than their grade. Their teacher, recognizing this, was more than willing to provide those students with more challenging work. For some reason, however, this principal had no interest in allowing those gifted learners to really spread their academic wings and see how high they could fl y. So rather than standing by and being content with Khyra’s mastery of a standard curriculum while her true potential remained untapped, my wife and I decided to move her.
Over the next few years, despite administrative promises to the contrary, we would continue to encounter similar issues within the area schools. The classrooms were typically overcrowded and there was a constant turnover in the teaching ranks. School resources were scarce and the young scholars showing a higher learning capacity were too often overlooked as the focus remained primarily on teaching students to score well on standardized tests which do not correctly reflect what a child has actually learned. Moreover, that teaching method in no way prepares students for college but rather stands as a primary reason inner-city students with college potential are so often at a disadvantage when competing with others for admission into institutions of higher learning. To us, it was beginning to look like a certain group of kids was purposely being set up to fail.
My wife, while continuing to supplement Khyra’s public education with a creative form of home-schooling, began applying to the top schools in Southern California. These schools, all private, very expensive and difficult to get into, were outside of our residential area and definitely outside of our budget. Nonetheless, they offered all of what we wanted for our daughter: amazing academics, strong arts and enrichment programs, limitless resources, diversity and a family atmosphere that could lead to a lifetime of networking and opportunities neither of us ever had. Impressed by Khyra’s grades and personal package of achievements and extracurricular activity, the schools started calling to set up entrance testing and interviews. In the end, she received acceptance and a near full scholarship to the school of her choice. Attending one of the top schools in the nation, she has already adapted well, made a host of new friends and is absolutely loving the challenging new learning environment.
I am the proud father, indeed. Still, it saddens me to think that most children from neighborhoods like my own will never have the academic opportunities they deserve. For that reason, I urge parents and guardians alike not to settle for classroom mediocrity. Our children are worthy of so much more. Let’s fight to give them that great gift of a good education
I was somewhat surprised that my children born in South America don’t seem to share my passion for fighting for racial justice in the United States, that they don’t even see its injustice the way I do. Because of this, it throws into question my assumptions about how they thought about me when we were apart. I wonder what my children were thinking about me when they were in foster care…so young and knowing so little of my story and what had happened to me. Why was I in prison? What was their narrative about me?
After all, they didn’t grow up in this country; that wasn’t the context they were immersed in. They had no conception of the rising intensity of racial antagonism within this country that continues today. Nor had they ever heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. All that my children knew was that they had a loving daddy and then he left, and when he left, things turned into a nightmare.
As a young activist fighting for social justice during the tumultuous 1960s, I was focused on wanting to make a difference for the very reason of wanting children – my children, everyone’s children – to be able to grow up in a just and safe world. I had a big picture view, a revolutionary vision that was a kind of love for them.
Would I do it all again the same way, knowing the huge emotional toll it has taken on my children? I was not there when they needed me most. But my choice was not just about making a difficult decision to join the struggle for social change. It was also about a racist system and the actions of COINTELPRO that limited my choices. I can’t honestly say that there are no regrets. But if I had to do it all over again, I would. However, this time I would be mindful of the collateral damage done to my children. I would never forsake or take for granted the small picture for the big picture.
In a strange way, the ironic outcome of me not being there for them is that my children don’t see or understand the issues like they might have if I had been teaching and dialoguing with them all those years. Sadly but truthfully, being in prison for so many years, separating them from their children, is the plight of so many Black fathers. Because my life was sacrificed for the struggle, the big picture, I didn’t get to raise my own children to see critical social issues as I would want them to. And in fact, a few of my children have some beliefs that are really shocking to me. That is a hard outcome to have, given my life for the struggle.
A thing that feels so poignant to me is that my pregnant daughter Latanya, with her unborn son, proclaims passionately how she will never abandon her child. She will care for him above and beyond any and everything else. She will always be there for him, to comfort, protect and support him in all his dreams and aspirations. For Latanya, there is no issue more compelling and important to her than raising her child. She says, “I can name a million and one incidents where I would rather have had you there than you being where you were because of what you were doing for ‘your people’! So like I said, Dad, the price you paid was not worth it! It’s not that I don’t care. I just care more about my child!”
I realize that Latanya is just as passionate about her unborn child as I was in my passion for revolutionary social change in this country. But I also understand that if the society in which she lives is not just, and sees her son as less-than, then all the love she pours into him and all the protection she offers will not be enough. She will long for changes in society so that he can thrive and grow in the ways every mother wants to see.
It feels tenderly naive to me that she thinks that she on her own can make his world. She can do a lot, but he will have to live in this society. She can “choose him above everything else,” but he and all of us still need activists fighting for justice. My grandson also needs the social justice work I care about. If I have come to any conclusion at all about family and social struggle, it is this: It is not a question of either/or but must be a balance of both/and. My hope for my unborn grandson is that he cries out into a world where justice prevails and Black lives truly matter.
“We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I reflect on my past, which was once my present, I find that it is this soul force for justice that proves to be the most effective and sustainable in the fight against racism.
I was an active participant in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Similar to today, it was a period when America was confronted with the issue of police brutality and the devaluing of Black lives. It was a time when young people across this country were breaking through racist barriers, opening up closed doors of opportunity and raising critical questions about war and the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It was a time when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised the banner of non-violence. King is remembered for his nonviolence (sometimes scornfully by those who take the view that violence is necessary for social change) and for his “dream.” But is he remembered enough for his uncompromising moral struggle for social justice?
For me and many of my peers at the time, the struggle against injustice was much more a physical struggle than it was a moral one. To us, soul force was elusive, intangible, and therefore no match for the violent impact of physical force. Our generational struggle against injustice was by “any means necessary!”
Over the past few months, there has been a national outcry over deadly instances of police misconduct in this country, and a social momentum seems to be building around this very real and relevant issue of racism and police brutality. Our African-American president publicly acknowledged the deep-seated racism in this country, and the widespread police killings of young Black and Brown men across this country. Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many others serve to illustrate his claim. (There are also daily episodes of senseless inter-community violence of epidemic proportions, young Black men senselessly killing other young Black men. We must not make comparative excuses for the loss of Black lives. Black lives matter, regardless of who pulls the trigger.)
In years past, there were essentially two tendencies in the protest movement against racial injustice and for social change: (1) Civil Rights; and (2) Black Power. The civil rights movement spoke to the conscience of this nation, compelling America to do a thorough self-examination over the mistreatment of its Black citizens. The Black Power tendency was to demand that America not only forsake its evil ways but do so immediately, or there would be consequences.
Examining my own life experience, I’ve come to realize that those consequences inevitably lead to more violence and only promote a perpetual cycle of unintended consequences. Being involved in the Black Power movement was crucial for me. It allowed me to reclaim and reconnect with my history, instilled in me a sense of racial pride, self-respect and a commitment to self-defense. It made me feel that I could and must make a worthy contribution to humanity because I was more than the lies that had been taught to me by White society. I was Black, I was proud, and I was human!
But I have come to see that the fatal flaw of our vision was that the means were not as pure as the ends. This is where MLK had a wisdom I have now come to treasure, a wisdom drawn from his desire to imitate Jesus. “Means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.” Throughout my journey — here and in exile — I’ve seen the consequences of violence perpetrated by men of good intentions, for good causes!
King’s way provided an example of soul force. He gave inspiration for hope in a vision of human society in which peace, equality and human dignity prevail. His soul force comes from a deep conviction, the same passionate conviction that says all lives matter, and that a free, egalitarian and just society is possible. The hope of that vision reverberates today, and continues to have the capacity to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
—Watani Stiner was recently released from prison after serving 26 years at San Quentin State Prison. He’s completing his memoir and is enjoying his freedom immensely — particularly the freedom he has to communicate with, spend time with and enjoy his children.
By the time this article goes to print in April, I will have been out of prison for 90 days. If you’ll notice, I did not say that I have been “free” for 90 days. Freedom is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects one could write about. It is a subtle concept, a concept that requires context to ground it or it becomes entirely ambiguous and elusive. Freedom is not an object or thing. Freedom is essentially a relationship. There are relationships that reflect the demeaning and oppressive environments they arise from (like prisons, human exploitation, abusive marriages, and wars); and others that are mutually beneficial and allow one to exercise his or her creative potential, make meaningful contributions and to flourish in the context of family, community, society and true friendships.
Twenty-one years after my voluntary surrender I have suddenly been deemed suitable for parole, declared “no longer a danger to society.” My insistence of innocence hasn’t changed one iota during the two decades since my voluntary return. I consistently maintained that the 1969 shootout on the UCLA campus in which two human beings tragically lost their lives (and I was convicted) was not the result of any “conspiracy!” Now, after two decades of captivity, the parole board has finally set me “free.” Of course I’m thrilled to be out of prison and fortunate enough to be surrounded by so many of my family and friends, but like my son has stated in a recent article about that rearview mirror, “I can still see smoke rising from the wreckage behind me.” The pleasures I have on this side of the wall are burdened with the years and years of loss and aggressive obstruction of relationships exacted by the prison system.
The freedom I am now experiencing cannot be measured by how far removed I am from the walls of San Quentin State Prison nor by the inhumane treatment so pervasive in prison life. Freedom from those kinds of relationships, though important enough, is far less important to me than the freedom to reclaim my once captured life and be with my family and community. Each day I realize my freedom through my renewed relationship with my children: the freedom to embrace them, to hear their stories and to be fully present in their lives. That’s the type of freedom I choose to write about for this column. I celebrate that freedom, at the same time that I mourn the huge pieces of my life, which I can never get back.
No matter how much freedom you have or think you have, a lost relationship with your children can never be retrieved even when you are released from prison. No matter how hard I try, I can never recover the missed birthdays, proms, late night chats, inside jokes, graduations and marriages. Because of my incarceration I lost the ability to be the father I could have been. Paradoxically, prison also was never able to cage the unbreakable connection that I have with my children and family. In some sense, I remained free throughout my incarceration through our mutual love – even when I spent years without being able to even communicate with them.
The origin of the word “free” comes from a word meaning “to love.” It is the same word that “friend” comes from. I want to focus on this meaning of freedom, and not the shallow definition it usually has in American culture: having lots of options and doing whatever you want. Freedom is relationship, and it is something close to the heart of every human being.
Thanks to a positive decision in Sacramento, this is my final article while incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. Subsequent articles will be from me on parole. Because of the length of this article and the limited space available, the second part will appear in the February edition (Black History Month). My son, Larry Jr., will contribute an article for the March column.
“[Racism] is something that is deeply rooted in our society; it’s deeply rooted in our history.” –Barack Obama
In light of the righteous outrage surrounding successive grand jury decisions not to indict police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I would be remiss in my responsibilities if I didn’t offer an OG’s perspective on these latest miscarriages of justice.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, let us turn our respectful gaze on the life and struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was coming of age at the height of Dr. King’s influence, during the time when his dynamic speeches and powerful leadership were constantly in the news, a time when he met with presidents and led marches of thousands. I was 15 years old when he made his electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In this thrilling speech, what is most quoted and remembered is King’s impassioned articulation of a vision of a “post-racial” world of harmony and economic justice, where a man is judged “not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.”
King’s “Dream” gives form to hope in a description of human society in which equality and human dignity prevail. His powerful words come from a deep conviction, the same passionate conviction that says all lives matter, and that a free, egalitarian and just society is possible. The hope of that vision reverberates today, and continues to have the capacity to inspire and empower.
“We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force”
However, there are a whole lot of words King speaks before he gets to that utopian dream. He lays out for America the challenges and urgency of the issues at hand, and just why such a dream is so desperately needed. King also taught that there can be no racial reconciliation in this country without the requirements of justice or struggle.
Listen to the prescient words King uttered to the marchers nearly 52 years ago:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of (Black’s) legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that (Blacks) needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the (African American) is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the (Black) community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
“We cannot walk alone.
“And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
“We cannot turn back.
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the (African American) is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality…”
Could this speech be any more pertinent to the issues facing us today, as a movement grows against that self-same racism and police brutality King spoke of a half-century ago? King is remembered for his nonviolence (sometimes scornfully by those who take the view that violence is necessary for social change) and for his Dream, but is he remembered enough for his impassioned plea that “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” That “there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the (African American) is granted his citizenship rights.” And the very first violation of those rights Martin Luther King, Jr. names in his famous speech: police brutality.
I’m sure that many of you reading this will agree with King that we must march ahead, that we must not rest until we have reached the goal. But that raises the question: what does marching ahead entail? What work can we put ourselves to that will be most effective in moving forward?
In another, lesser-known speech given in Michigan five years after his Dream speech and just a month before he was murdered, King discussed this. In next month’s (Black History Month) column, we’ll remember what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to say about moving forward.
END OF PART #1