Aug. 30 execution date set for Haramia KiNassor / Kenneth Foster, Jr.
Hans Bennett interviews Walidah Imarisha
Hans Bennett: While many of us gathered here in Philadelphia on April 24 celebrating the birthday of Mumia Abu-Jamal, you were in Texas visting Haramia KiNassor (Kenneth Foster, Jr.) on death row. How was your visit?
Walidah Imarisha: It was a hard decision to be down in Texas instead of in Philly for Mumia’s birthday. Mumia’s Live From Death Row was a catalyst for so much of my political understanding and organizing work, and working on his campaign is one of the main reasons I moved to Philadelphia.
But I knew that being in Texas and meeting with Haramia would be one of the organizing moves that Mumia would be supportive of, and Haramia and I kept his birthday on our minds and our tongues as we talked about the work Mumia does, in relation to the work that Haramia and the other brothas on death row in Texas are doing.
Texas is rough. Prison in Texas is incredibly difficult, and death row in Texas brings to mind Mumia’s quote of a “bright shining hell.”
I met Haramia, who has been on death row for 10 years, first through his poetry, when I was the editor of AWOL Magazine, where he has had several pieces published, and then through The Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner family organization I work with in Philadelphia. Hasan Shakur, a close comrade of Haramia’s, started an HRC chapter in Texas and brought Haramia in, and he served for a while on our advisory council. I had never met him in person before April 23rd.
I entered the death row visiting area, the same area I went to see Hasan Shakur before they executed him Aug. 31, 2006. Usually visits on Texas’ row are only two hours, but because I came from out of town, I was able to request two four hour visits on consecutive days. I sat down in front of a cage, behind glass, an all white cage. As I sat and waited for them to bring Haramia out, I remembered looking through that same glass to see Hasan on the other side, his dark frame looking even larger in the cramped whiteness of the mesh cage.
They finally brought Haramia out, dressed all in white as are all prisoners at the Polunsky Unit. I was struck by how young he looked. Just like Hasan, these two strong brothas, who have been through hell every day, who are committed souljahs to the struggle, still can have their faces split with wide summer day smiles that call their child selves back into their bodies.
The time visiting with him today flew by. He has such an incredibly quick mind, we went from one subject to the next, and he never lost his concentration. We could get forty minutes and five topics off point, but he was still able to bring to back home and tie it together.
He has really tapped into art and poetry and hip hop as tools in the anti-death penalty movement, and in the struggle in general, which is a vital organizing tool to get the word out. He was one of the inspirations for the hip hop/spoken word band/collective The Welfare Poets’ anti-death penalty compilation CD Cruel and Unusual Punishment, www.myspace.com/deathpenaltycd, which is a powerful collection of raw conscious hard hitting pieces about criminal injustice in this country.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment also includes a song by Haramia’s fiancée, a hip hop artist from the Netherlands called Jav’lin. She did an incredible song called “Walk With Me,” and she just released the video of it, which is up at www.freekenneth.com, in addition to other places. I watched it as soon as I got back, and I was really moved by it, both as a piece of art (she did it on her own and out of her pocket and I thought it was really well put together and professionally done) and as a political organizing tool that really speaks to the realities of the people who love folks caught up in the criminal justice system, especially death row.
The first day was tense, because we were waiting to hear back from the U.S. Supreme Court. Haramia had gotten a positive ruling from San Antonio federal District Judge Royal Furgeson, who overturned his death sentence on March 3, saying that he could not be given the death penalty for his part in the crime. However, the state appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that judge’s ruling, and reinstituted the death penalty. Haramia’s lawyer then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The minute I walked out of the prison on April 23rd, I had a message from Claire, one of his tireless supporters. The Supreme Court had declined to hear his case. It was definitely a moment of feeling completely hopeless for me, because the facts in the case that everyone agrees on so clearly do not warrant a death sentence. I did not expect justice from a system so flawed and corrupt, but it was still a hard blow.
But it was Haramia who walked me through it, by showing his resilience and inner strength the next day. He walked in with his head high, knowing that they would issue him a date of execution (which they did five days ago – the date set for his execution is Aug. 30, the day before they executed his comrade Hasan a year ago), and still committed mind, body and soul to continuing the work for freedom, just as Mumia is, and Hasan and all the other conscious folks locked down across this nation, and they struggle not for themselves, but for all of us, for our collective freedom.