"I Have To Oppose The Whole Justice System"

Freed Member Of The Angola Three Continues To Speak Out

Robert "King" Wilkerson was freed from Louisiana’s Angola Prison a little over a year ago. A member of the Angola 3, he spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit. Robert organized while in prison to try to improve conditions. And since winning his freedom, he has spoken at many events in the U.S. and abroad to expose the injustices of the criminal justice system and to publicize the plight of the other members of the Angola 3, who remain in prison.

The Campaign is proud to have Robert as a keynote speaker at our national convention in November. He talked to the New Abolitionist about his ideas.

You became a member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. What drew you to those politics?

As a young man, I was always what you’d call a rebel. I always knew there was a blatant disparity in society. And I knew about Martin Luther King, I knew about Elijah Muhammad, and I knew about Malcolm X. I knew about all the other people--Robert F. Williams and them.

Being born in the 1940s, I experienced discrimination. But like many others, I kind of brushed it aside. It wasn’t until 1970, after I was arrested and accused of a crime that I hadn’t committed--it was then that I really became quite focused on fixing society. And after that, I learned that there was a branch of the Black Panther Party in New Orleans.

About five months after I was arrested, there was a shootout between the Black Panther Party chapter and the New Orleans Police Department. And when I say shootout, I really say that in quotes, because it was the New Orleans Police Department that was doing the shooting.

It was right after that that I met members of the Black Panther Party. It was then that I became really focused. The Panthers had a 10-point program, and the first one was we want freedom. And after that, we want the power to determine our own destiny. Even though I didn’t understand the total significance of that at the time, the fact is that was what I wanted myself.

Do those ideas remain with you?

I feel that when it comes to freedom and the power to determine our destiny, presently, Blacks and other minorities don’t have that power. The Panthers went on to point out that we want an end to murder and police brutality in the Black community, and we want an end to exploitation, we want land, we want education. These are the things that I embrace--even today, because it persists at this time.

How do you see the struggle against the death penalty fitting in with your ideas about society?

I have to look at it like this. Not only do I oppose the death penalty, but I oppose the way the American jurisprudence system operates as a whole.

We think about the abolition of the death penalty. But in Louisiana, I would have to think about the abolition of prisons. I say this because of the knowledge that in Louisiana, if you get a life sentence, it is, in fact, a death sentence. In a recent article, the head warden of the Louisiana state prison system says that 90 percent of prisoners who get a life sentence die in prison. That means that only 500 or so prisoners out of 5,100 prisoners will be released. The rest will die there.

Prison in Louisiana--and maybe in other states--is equivalent to slavery. Supposedly, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Not so--not for prisoners, as long as you are legally convicted of a crime. And just because you’ve been duly convicted of a crime does not mean that you were rightfully convicted of a crime. There are many people in Angola who were wrongfully incarcerated.

What words of advice do you have for anti-death penalty activists?

My advice is proceed--try to pursue whatever means and efforts necessary to get rid of the death penalty. But I would like for them to get a broader vision. Go beyond the imminence of the death penalty. I would tell people to continue to pursue the idea of abolishing the death penalty, but I also would encourage them to pursue the idea of eliminating prison as we know it today.