SermonsJalil Muntaqim

Treasure in Ferguson, Colombia, Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turtle Island

Note: I originally wrote this reflection for my blog, then adapted it for my organization’s CPTnet. I’m adapting it back again a little.

Since a St. Louis, Missouri prosecutor and Grand Jury have determined that Police Officer Darren Wilson killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown did not merit a trial, I have been busy tweeting #Ferguson on the Christian Peacemaker Team Twitter account. Those tweets have been getting a lot of retweets. We have no people working in Ferguson and I have asked myself why I am inundating the account.

I think it has to do with the disposability of human life, with the contempt shown to Michael Brown when the authorities left his body in the street for four and a half hours and did not bother interviewing key witnesses to the shooting for weeks (until there was a public outcry.) That contempt connected directly with our work in Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine, with indigenous communities in North America, and with migrants in Europe. In all these cases, people in power have deemed the people we work with disposable.
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If you want to drive Colombian farmers off their land so that you can make big profits with palm oil plantations, it’s okay to assault them, to threaten to rape their nine-year old daughters, to kill their animals, to burn their homes, to use the instruments of the Colombian state illegally to evict their communities’ teachers. And of course, you can do much worse. The types of violent harassment cited above are just some issues the communities we work with have been dealing with recently.

In Iraqi-Kurdistan, our civil society partners have had to drop most of their work to focus on the some most disposable people in the world: refugees. And these refugees have included those from the Ezidi/Yazidi community, whose wives, sisters, and daughters are now in ISIS/DAESH brothels, women considered worthless except for sexual gratification.

And then there is the project CPT Europe participated in this summer, welcoming the refugees that Europe wishes would just disappear, and who, because of European policies, have drowned by the thousands in the Mediterranean, fleeing the violence in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

In Palestine, for nineteen long years, we have watched the forces of military occupation say it is acceptable to arrest, jail and torture Palestinian men, women and children without due process, and destroy their homes if Israel wants their land for settlement expansion. It is acceptable for soldiers to shoot teargas at Palestinian children on their way to school and look on as settlers attack them.

In our work with Indigenous partners, we have watched again and again naked racism strip them of their sovereignty, strip their lands of their resources, and leave behind the toxic poisons of their industries. We have watched the Canadian government shrug as 1800 Indigenous women are reported murdered and missing.

So I think it’s all related—Mike Brown, VonDerrit Myers, Tamir Rice, Tina Fontaine, Loretta Saunders, Bella Laboucan-McLean, Marissa Alexander, Jalil Muntaqim, Leonard Peltier…People of color who lost their lives, livelihoods, and freedom because here in North America they were considered just as disposable as the people we work with in Colombia, Palestine, Lesvos, Turtle Island and Kurdistan.

The good news, of course, is that our Colombian, Indigenous, Palestinian, Kurdish, and refugee partners are revealing to the world that they are a treasure—as are the people of Ferguson. The season of Advent is upon us. Let us listen.

Good hashtags to follow #BlackLivesMatter #TheologyofFerguson #StayWokeAdvent. Good accounts: @FaithinFerguson, @BroderickGreer @MikeBrownCover. The #Ferguson hashtag has a lot of good information, but you will also find really racist tweets there.

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And so it descends

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A few weeks ago, I finally said aloud in church what I had been resisting admitting to others and myself. I have entered another cycle of depression. In April, I was feeling a lot of stress about finishing some CPT-related projects and kept focusing on some indeterminate future time when they would be over, and I would catch up. But the calendar kept filling up, and my stress level did not drop. I continued to feel as though I were constantly on the verge of tears.

I began missing writing deadlines and meetings. Still, when I went to see my doctor about having a mouth so full of canker sores that I could not speak clearly (yes, also a symptom of stress) and he asked about my depression, I told him that my mood was fine.

I don’t remember now what triggered the, “Duh, of course you’re depressed,” epiphany. I only know that when I shared it in church, I felt a lot better; it took some of the power from this nebulous stress-creating force away. Knowing that people are praying for you always helps. And then, well, it’s like living with any kind of chronic pain. My husband can call and ask how I am and I can say, casually, “Oh you know, consumed by dread and anxiety,” and he can say, “Oh, the usual,” and I can say, “Yeah.”

Unlike chronic pain, this depression will go away eventually. Knowing it’s temporary is also helpful. When I am working in the garden, for some reason, the internal pain is less and I feel closer to God. This week, when I was with friends at my spiritual formation group, they pointed out that my depression generally coincides with periods when I am not writing, so I am trying to institute a discipline of writing one page a day on my new novel—working title, “Don’t Call Me Buffy”—before I run e-mail. I’m finding the results are a little disjointed. It’s a two volume novel and I know exactly how I want both books to end and I have a strong general story arc, but I’ve been unclear on the very beginning, so stopping abruptly after I have finished  250 words isn’t doing much for flow or a generally zippy opening. I’m hoping that once things start clicking I can go back and a better beginning will suggest itself.

Unfortunately, a symptom of depression is that it makes focus and concentration difficult, which affects my writing and editing, my work for Christian Peacemaker Teams and my general life skills here at home. (Yesterday my husband asked me to follow up with my doctor about a wellness screening form I was supposed to have mailed in more than a week ago, and I hadn’t mailed it in yet. Guess I’ll do that today.)

Most days, I triumph over inertia. Most days, I triumph over blind panic. If d4b5602ef0fa695a47fe87b27950e37fyou met me for the first time, you would not know I am struggling. But just maintaining a safe distance from the magnetic pull of the abyss takes all my energy.

Yesterday was a bad day. We learned our friend Jalil Muntaqim had been denied parole for the eighth time, and we knew that for the first time he had had one sympathetic person on the parole board, so she evidently had failed to convince one other person to vote with her. All day, I couldn’t stop imagining what it must have felt like for him to have his hopes raised after more than four decades in prison and then…

Everything else seemed so pointless, you know?

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My newest beta reader is a COINTELPRO prisoner

UPDATE:  We learned on the morning of June 25, 2014 that Jalil was turned down for parole yet again.  He wrote to me and my husband that there had been one sympathetic person on the parole board, but she must have failed to convince one of the other two people.   I feel so sad, because I know from letters he wrote to me and my husband that he had allowed himself to hope.

 

In previous blog posts I wrote about a visit to Attica prison and my conversation with Jalil Muntaqim, a member of the Black Panther Party who70949 was swept up in the COINTELPRO prosecutions/persecutions of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in the 1970s and has been incarcerated since 1973.

During our visit in April, we were talking about our writing and my husband brought up, a little to my chagrin, my novel, The Price We Paid, and suggested that Jalil’s opinion on it was worth having.

Now, the thing is, my main character, Islam Goldberg-Jones is a political prisoner incarcerated for three decades for a crime he did not commit. Even though the fascist Christian Republic government has fallen by the end of the novel, he remains in jail because the federal judiciary remains filled with Christian Republic appointees. I actually had in mind COINTELPRO prisoner Leonard Peltier when I subjected Iz to life in prison. (I had this fantasy that if the novel were published I would follow up with a novella or short story that frees Iz on the condition that Obama pardon Peltier—but it looks unlikely at this point that the book will be published while Obama is still in office.)

So, I never thought I’d have the chance to have an actual COINTELPRO prisoner read the novel and offer suggestions—and he was someone I did not know well to boot, always a bonus in a beta reader. (People most willing to read your manuscripts are usually people who like you, and they will try to be objective, but they will also always cut you a little slack.)

Within a few days of his receiving my manuscript, I had Jalil’s first letter. It was exactly the sort of critique that any writer hopes to receive from a reader, one that shows the reader has read the manuscript carefully, noticed gaps in logic, and sees ways that it can be improved. He followed it with two more letters containing some afterthoughts—again, gratifying to the writer, because it shows the novel has stuck with the reader.

The flaw he pointed out that I most want to remedy was the omission of how the African slave trade, 400 years of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow etc would have fed into the rise of the Christian Republic theocracy—even though the people participating in the government, including people of color, might not understand this history.

Additionally, he wrote

As you may recall, I mentioned there was an absence of the African diaspora experience and how it shaped the U.S. existence. What I failed to mention as a method for you to include this dynamic is the reality of how the slave trade miscegenation created a New Afrikan. The Igbo, Hausa, Fulani, Mandigo, Mandika, etc. etc. were chained, shackled and brought to the country, denied the right to practice their indigenous religions (Yoruba, Islam, Animism, etc.) were told to Christianize their names, not permitted to read or write, until they were integrated into the Christian religion, soon being allowed to read the Bible and Christian literature, etc. until they were able to have Black Christian churches and other forms of worship. This method of creating a New Afrikan, including Native American and European DNA in the Afrikan bloodline, wrapped in the Christian belief system was an important plan/procedure to domicile these Africans, which lead to the U.S. becoming an international economic power.

So this has given me the idea to go back to the Ralph section, when he is meeting the young people from all the various youth groups in the DC area to plan public witnesses that are veiled critiques of the government, and having one of them be a New Afrikan youth group, who view Christianity as a slave religion. I was thinking that Jerry, Ralph’s boyfriend, could become fascinated by the New Afrikan kids and interested in that history. Hank, on the other hand, devout African Methodist Episcopal Zion member that he is, would frown on this talk, and that could increase the sense of alienation that Ralph begins to feel towards Hank, who has been a mentor and father figure to him.

Last summer, I wrote about the pleasure of revising future Canadian history in the manuscript after my colleague Jim Loney read it.  I will feel some of the same pleasure incorporating Jalil’s suggestions, especially since Iz and most of the people in my novel’s resistance movement are people of color.

So I was even more apologetic than I would have been ordinarily that it took me so long to respond to Jalil’s letters. I noted that I was feeling a little overwhelmed by my CPT work, and had been unable to do writing that really fed me for more than a month (more about this in a future post.) He wrote back that it was good to take time away from CPT work to deal with my needs and mentioned that his comrade in the struggle, Safiya Bukhari had died too young because she had not taken care of herself. (It feels weird to receive comfort and encouragement from someone who is locked up in Attica while I am living a suburban lifestyle in Rochester, NY.) I googled Bukhari and really wish she was still around. She sounds awesome. And she was a year older than I am when she died.

In a couple weeks, Jalil will be face a parole hearing for the eighth time. It is my great hope that justice will prevail and he will be able to leave prison and sit down to the family dinner his mother wants so much. If not, I am going to adjust my fantasy. If I manage to sell this book I will suggest, as part of the marketing, that I will follow up with a short story or novella about Iz leaving jail, on the condition that all of the COINTELPRO prisoners receive a pardon.

Dreams are free, right?

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Why aren’t the COINTELPRO prisoners free already? My visit with Jalil Muntaqim in Attica

UPDATE:  We learned on the morning of June 25, 2014 that Jalil was turned down for parole yet again.  He wrote to me and my husband that there had been one sympathetic person on the parole board, but she must have failed to convince one of the other two people.   I feel so sad, because I know from letters he wrote to me and my husband that he had allowed himself to hope.

Attica prisoner from COINTELPRO era to face eighth parole hearing in June

The release of Betty Medsger’s book The Burglary this winter51XfdlEUf4L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_ once again drew attention to the conspiracies of COINTELPRO, a program devised by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that sought to discredit and destabilize minority empowerment and self-defense groups like the NAACP, Black Panthers and American Indian Movement— sometimes to the point of assassinating members of their leadership.
The false evidence and prosecutorial misconduct used to convict high profile COINTELPRO prisoners such as Leonard Peltier is a matter of public record. But J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI also framed dozens of lesser known individuals such as Attica inmate Jalil Muntaqim (formerly Anthony Bottom) who, like Peltier, are still in jail decades after the Church Committee held hearings in 1975 exposing this misconduct.

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Muntaqim on April 9, 2014 at Attica State Prison. The problem with the Church Committee hearings, he told me, was that they never proposed a remedy for the activists imprisoned by the unethical conduct of the law enforcement officers during the COINTELPRO years.

Among the irregularities in his own prosecution for the murder of two police officers in 1971 included a colleague tortured with a cattle prod and needles in his testicles to get him to testify against Muntaqim and Herman Bell both of whom were convicted of the killings. When he told the judge he was testifying only because of torture, the judge informed the prosecutor that the witness had revealed this information to him, but did not share the information with the defense. Muntaqim also knows that tapes exist of Hoover, Nixon, H.R. Haldemann, John Ehrlichman, and Mark Felt (of Watergate’s Deep Throat fame) deciding to solve the shootings of the police officers (under the code name NewKill) by setting up Muntaqim and his codefendants, but his lawyer has not been granted access to those tapes. During his trial, ballistics expert George Simmons matched a gun that Muntaqim had carried in California to the bullet that killed the police officers and testified that he was the only person who had examined this ballistics evidence. Years later, Muntaqim’s defense team found out that an FBI ballistics expert had examined the gun and the bullet and determined they were not a match. This information was also withheld from the defense. In the 1980s, three months after Muntaqim’s lawyer filed a petition for a new trial based on this new evidence, someone removed the gun and the ballistics report from the locker in New York where they had been stored.

The parole board, largely made up of ex-law enforcement personnel, has denied Jalil Muntaqim parole seven times. The first six times, they did so because he did not express remorse (this stipulation is a glitch in the system for all who take plea bargains to avoid the hazards or costs of a trial or prisoners who are wrongly convicted: they must express remorse for crimes they did not commit.) For the seventh time, because his eighty-year-old mother wants so much for the whole family to sit down for a meal together before she dies, he decided to say, “Okay, I did it,” and express remorse. The parole board then denied him parole because he had lied about committing the crime the previous six times.

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Jalil Muntaqim has another parole hearing coming up in June. He has 750 letters testifying to his good character and his rehabilitation. Included among those is a letter from the family of one of the slain police officers who wrote of Muntaqim and Herman Bell, “If they did it, we forgive them. But we have serious concerns about whether they are the ones.” Muntaqim will argue the precedent set by Silman v. Travis that if remorse and rehabilitation are the only relevant factors for a parole board to make decision regarding his release, the members of the board cannot make up reasons to keep him in jail.

Aside from wanting to grant his mother’s wish, he also thinks he could do more on the outside to keep young people out of jail. “I’m wasted here,” he told me. “I feel like I’m that Dutch boy with all ten fingers and toes in the dike.”

From a justice perspective, however, Mr. Muntaqim’s plans for the future are beside the point. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program was a stain on our constitution and disreputable era in our law enforcement history. The people it sent to prison should be set free.

Kathleen Kern, from Rochester, NY has worked for the human rights organization Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1993, serving on assignments—and advocating for political prisoners—in Haiti, Israel, Palestine, Mexico, Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, the U.S. and Canada.

 

 

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Visit to Attica Prison aka “Correctional Facility”

My husband and I are perhaps the only couple I know who would work a trip to Attica Correctional Facility into a romantic weekend getaway. But we did. I’ll be writing more about our visit with Jalil Muntaqim this week. Jalil—like Leonard Peltier, Martin Luther King, and members of other minority empowerment and antiwar groups—was the target of J. Edgar Hoover’s vivious COINTELPRO campaign, which came to light in the 1970s.

But I thought for now I’d just jot down a few impressions of imagesour visit to Attica, which looks something like a castle with its turrets, parapets and ramparts. Michael and I got there around 10:30, bringing with us our drivers licenses and the car key—the only items visitors are allowed to take inside the prison. We filled out information slips with rubbery pens about 3” long (made so they could not be weaponized, I guess—but when we got inside with the actual prisoners they laid out pencils for us to use, so I could have gotten all stabby with those menacing lead points, if I had wanted to.)

We sat in the outside waiting room with families who were talking with each other in subdued conversations. A nurse who had sat apart and said she usually keeps to herself told us the guards were behaving disrespectfully that day, by making the people wait outside while they appeared to be doing nothing. I came to understand once we were inside, while watching the other people as we sat talking with Jalil, how precious that time was to them, and that this time was dispensed entirely at the discretion of the guards.

This is the outfit I was wearing when I was deemed too alluring for Attica.

This is the outfit I was wearing when I was deemed too alluring for Attica.

When the guards called Jalil’s name (actually, the name before he became a Muslim, “Anthony Bottom,”), Michael and I came forward to be processed. A female guard informed me that my shirt was too revealing, and I would have to go to a dollar store and buy something else. I said I could zip up the vest I was wearing, but she told me I could not be trusted to do that while I was in the visiting room. Fortunately, since we had planned to go to a bed and breakfast afterwards, Michael had an extra shirt in his car.

I took the car keys, turned to the others in the waiting room and said, “Guess I’m too slutty for Attica” and walked out. Later, one young woman who had burst out laughing when I said this, was told her fashionably ripped jeans and striped sweater were too tight—even though other women had been allowed in wearing identical clothing. I wondered if it was because she laughed. I also wondered what sort of business the dollar store did selling clothes to people who arrived wearing the wrong ones, and what people did who came to see family members on the bus, who didn’t have a car to make the quick three mile trip to the dollar store to appease the arbiters of suitable prison visitor attire.

By the time we actually got to the visiting room, and Jalil was released to come meet with us, it was 12:30—two hours after we had arrived. At one point Michael went to the vending machines to buy some lunch and Jalil asked me what I saw when I looked around at the other tables. I told him I was surprised by how much love I saw, by how many people were smiling. “I mean,” I said, “I’m sure there’s also a lot of family dysfunction, here, too.” He laughed. “You think?” he said. “Yeah,” I said, “but they’re still here. They want to be together. Some of these people have been physically holding on to each other for hours.”

“Yeah,” he said. “These families have sacrificed a lot to be here.”

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