In October 2009, I met with Fania Davis. Fania spoke around the concept and practice of “restorative justice.” After that meeting, I approached her and formally introduced myself. After extending my welcome and profound gratitude for her talk I shared a little of my history, telling her I was present at UCLA on the day that Ericka Huggins’ husband John and “Bunchy” Carter were shot and killed.
Fania (Angela Davis’ sister) seemed both surprised and excited that I had the courage to embark upon the “restorative justice” process. Since she and Ericka were good friends, Fania was more than willing to make the initial contact.
I questioned myself: would she be furious at my attempt to reach out to her after all these years? Would my act of writing to her bring back terrible memories and open up old wounds? What could I possibly say to Ericka now?
Instead of continuing to ask myself, “what-if?” I decided to write. This letter was my first step toward “restorative justice.”
A letter to Ericka:
In my heart I have written this letter to you and your daughter many times over; Yet, now that I’m confronted with how it might be received by you, I can’t seem to find the “right” set of words. I hope what I have to say is received by you in the loving and compassionate way in which it is felt and conveyed. My name is Watani Stiner and during the tumultuous Black Power era of the 60’s I was a member of Maulana Karenga’s “Us” organization. On January 17, 1969 I was present on the UCLA campus when a shooting erupted between members of Us and the Black Panther Party. In the aftermath of that tragic encounter, John, your husband, and Bunchy Carter were both shot and killed. I am currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison on a “conspiracy” charge related to their deaths.
Although I did not pull the trigger of the gun that took the lives of John and Bunchy, I have carried a heavy burden of guilt, knowing that I had contributed to the mindset and atmosphere resulting in the deaths of two human beings.
My journey of love and sacrifice for my own children has opened up my heart and allowed me to feel the emptiness you must have felt on that dreadful day you learned of John’s death — confusion, the questions, the pain, and the realization that your daughter would never get to know her father. For that, I am truly sorry. No words could ever fill the space left in a father’s absence.
Moreover, it is my contention that the UCLA shooting remains one of the most unresolved conflicts within the Black Power movement. And because it hasn’t been properly addressed and ultimately resolved, a vacuum and a model were established for the resurgence of violent gang formations in Los Angeles. Not withstanding external forces of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), I don’t think it is too much to suggest that the feud between the Crips and the Bloods is in many respect an extension and continuation of the violence between Us and the Panthers.
After listening to Fania Davis give a talk of “restorative justice” to a group of young men here at San Quentin, I introduced myself to her and expressed my desire to make contact with you for dialogue and reconciliation. Since Fania is actively engaged in promoting restorative justice, I asked her to help me reach out to you and to facilitate the process of reconciliation.
I trust that with Fania’s guidance we can enter into a process that will help us confront and challenge many of the myths and lingering speculations that have surfaced after the UCLA killings. Hopefully, many of your questions will be asked and answered through honest dialogue.
During my 20 years in exile, I wrestled with what had happened at UCLA and what I would and should have done differently. There is no justification for the killing of another human being. I thought about you and your daughter often, wondering how you and she were making it without John. How were Bunchy’s son and family? I imagined myself meeting up with you and visualized the conversation we would have, what I would say to your daughter, how she and you would respond.
There must have been many difficult, emotional times as you tried to cope. The many questions that must have plagued the mind of your daughter: what daddy was really like, the things he would have done for me, the places he would have taken me, and his presence at my graduation and marriage. Yes, Ericka, all of the things I have experienced (or wanted to) with my own children were denied your daughter.
It is said that time heals all wounds. But even if this saying is true, I’m sure it does not remove all of the scars. And I wonder just how many scars were left on you and your daughter over the years following the death of your husband John.
“Would my act of writing to her bring back
terrible memories and open up old wounds?”
The tragic irony of my situation (still doing time for a 40-year-old conspiracy conviction) seems utterly preposterous. I believe that because there was never any serious dialogue or genuine attempt at conflict resolution between Us and the Panthers, history was unable to reveal to us and teach our children anything about truth, reconciliation and forgiveness. I’m wondering if there is anything that can be done about it now.
The positive contributions both organizations made to our communities cannot be denied. However, in a culture of violence, absent any creative and bold intervention, the cycle continues. Would you be willing to join me in setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Forum as a model for our youth? I’m sure that there are others from the Movement who feel partially responsible for the violence permeating our communities today.
I also have an emotional and intellectual interest in trying to understand and combat the gang situation in L.A. My two teenage sons, recent residents of this country for almost five years have already been drawn to gangs and consumed by the criminal “justice” system.
Thank you Ericka for receiving my letter. I hope that you and your daughter are well and that you will be willing to communicate. I hope we can begin the necessary process of reconciliation. Of course, there is no guarantee that dialogue will lead to reconciliation, but there is a certainty that we cannot arrive there without it. If nothing more comes of this humble gesture, I’m at least grateful that you’ve received this letter and that I was able to express my feelings of regret at the deaths of John and Bunchy.
May you and your daughter receive good things without number and many blessings without end. –Watani–
(corresponding for three years…)