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Razor Wire, Prison Cells, and Black Panther Robert H. King’s Life of Resistance --An interview w/ filmmaker Ron Harpel

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Like most people, I had never given solitary confinement more than a passing thought. I knew it existed and I knew about injustice and cruelty in the penal system, but I had never been obliged to think about it. I had also never had the privilege of meeting someone like Robert King. During that first meeting I asked him all the questions people who first meet him ask and I got the answers he usually gives. Like all those answers that I have now heard so many times, he was sincere and insightful and as always, it was as though he was being asked the questions for the first time.

I had never met a Black Panther either. They weren't big in Canada and by the time I became politically aware, they were a thing of the past. I'm too young to remember the summer of "68, but there were a lot of draft dodgers and other leftists in our universities, so I read many of the books that Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and King read in prison. I was, therefore, taken with King's politics and fascinated by the story of his radicalization. I saw that King has a loyal network of committed people around him who support the A3 cause. In him I saw an opportunity to make another film, this time about the life of a remarkable man.

The result is a film called Hard Time. I didn't have much of a budget for the film but I knew it was one that had to be made. Anyone who follows the news about the A3 knows that Robert King is a moving target. I work with my wife and together we stalked King for about a year whenever our paths came close to each other. In this way I met several of the people who are closest to King and I interviewed some of them. But in the end, the film is just about King and it is his story punctuated with archival footage and photographs.

Filmmaking is a cooperative venture and Robert King was a cooperative subject. When the film started to come together I sent a copy to King and he told me after viewing the rough cut that it was "impactive."

I see it as a film that can take King's story to all the places he can't go himself. I do not make films that confirm what people already know, so I made Hard Time to help explain the history of civil rights and the Black Panthers to new audiences. Robert King is the thread that runs through this history.

A3N:   Could you say more about your time spent with King?

RH:   I wouldn't spend time with him if he wasn't a pleasure to be around. When we first met he would often say things like "I've had a lot of time to think about that." He doesn't say that to me so much anymore because our conversations have changed. I no longer ask many personal questions about him. Instead, we talk about issues and like anyone who has had a lot of time to think about things, and his responses are thoughtful and referenced. King is easy going but he is a man who is making up for lost time and he has both a political consciousness and a cause. I now spend lots of time thinking about what King says and trying to answer his questions.

When I last spent time with King he had just come from the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago where he was on a panel about the long-term effect of solitary confinement. I joked with King that he was not exactly the best example of all the damage solitary has on a human being. There is no escaping the fact that for three decades he was the subject of cruel and unusual punishment, but his spirit is such that he gets up every morning with the drive to change the world. This is a remarkable statement about King's personality and humanism.
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A3N:    Looking at the Angola 3 case, and more specifically the continuation of Albert Woodfox's nearly 42 years in solitary despite his conviction having been overturned for a third time last year, what do you think motivates Louisiana authorities? Is it to be vengeful as Amnesty International argues?

RH:    Vengeance is one thing that motivates some, but it is the system that permits the Louisiana authorities to act in the way they have.

When I visited Angola I was shown around by a man who was doing his job, just like all the other people working there who are doing their jobs. I was shocked when he told me that the only educational program offered in Angola is a religious program that enables prisoners to become preachers. Evidence of the success of this program are the numerous churches that have been built on the prison. I was told that it would be a waste of money to provide any other kind of education to the 5200 men in the prison because most were going to die in Angola and would never be able to use their education.

However, there is some training because everybody except those in solitary work until they die and the prison turns a profit by selling commercial crops and manufacturing things like license plates. It also turns a profit by holding two rodeos per year where several thousand people from the outside go to watch men who did not grow up on a ranch risk their lives in an attempt to win a bit of money. The prisoners work off the cost of incarceration in the fields and factories run by prison industries at a rate of 4 to 20 cents an hour. We speak of slave wages, but even slaves had more freedom than the men in Angola.

The US is one of the most affluent societies in world history and it seems to me that since most of the men and women who end up in prison are poor people, a better use of their time in prison would be to provide them with an education and programs that would allow them to work off the negative effects of being, as King puts it, from the "bottom of the heap." The authorities are merely products of a system that relies on convict labor.
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It is also not just the A3 and Albert Woodfox who are victims of the system. They just released Glenn Ford, a man who spent 30 years on death row in Angola for a crime he did not commit. Albert remains in prison as the last of the A3 to be in solitary but there are 80,000 other men and women in 6 by 9 cells across the United States. I'm sure that some of these people are a danger to themselves or to others, but keeping tens of thousands of people in cages is the sign of a society that is in real trouble.

A3N:   What about Albert and the A3 do you think LA authorities have viewed as the biggest threat?

RH:   The A3 are a threat because they challenged the system and their case can change the system.

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Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)

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