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Drive Against the Death Penalty

Kenneth Foster Lives

by DAVE ZIRIN

I sit here stunned: a goofy smile on my face, a tear on my cheek. This must be what victory feels like. Forgive me if I’m not familiar with its near-narcotic euphoria.

For folks who haven’t heard, Kenneth Foster’s death sentence was struck down today by Texas Gov. Rick Perry after a 6-1 recommendation by the Perry appointed Board of Parolees. This is just a tremendous victory for those of us around the world who fought to make sure today wasn’t the day Kenneth was put to death. We must take the time to remember Michael LaHood who lost his life 10 years ago at the hands of Mauricio Brown who was driving in Kenneth’s car. But we also remember the words of Sean Paul Kelly, Michael’s closest friend who opposed Kenneth’s execution. Kelly told the press, "..the execution of a young man who didn’t even kill Mike? That’s not justice. It’s senseless vengeance, a barbarism cloaked in the black robes of justice."

When victories like this occur, every link in the chain matters. Without question, the strongest links in this chain was Kenneth and his family. Kenneth said from the outset, "It’s my belief that if this does not become a political issue then I have no chance."

That was the plan of action laid out for the DRIVE movement on death row, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and other organizations that worked on his case. We made it political, asking the question over and over why Kenneth should be put to death for driving a car?

It was also the inspiration for a group of athletes and even a couple of sports writers, to stand together and demand that this man not be put to death. I want to take a moment and thank Etan Thomas, Dr. John Carlos, Lee Evans, Toni Smith, Dave Meggyesy, Jeff "Snowman" Monson, Dennis Brutus, William Gerena–Rochet, Neil DeMause, Doug Harris, Lester Rodney, Rus Bradburd and the INIMITABLE Scoop Jackson.

Below is a letter I received from Kenneth a couple weeks back with some of his thoughts on sports and society. I thought when I would eventually publish it, it would be a kind of eulogy. Instead it is a celebration of the struggle so desperately needed to see any kind of progress and a testament to his spirit.

In struggle and sports,
DAVE ZIRIN

 

Dear Dave,

Let me say that I grew up like most youths playing sports. I started off playing pee-wee football and went all the way up to high school giving it 6 years. I went to high school and hung out with guys that are now NFL football players (Priest Holmes, ND Kalu and have a cousin that was in the NFL as well- Tony Brackens). I indulged in basketball and track and field as well. But for me sports never took hold of me the way it did other youths. I had a pretty active mind, so from year to year I wanted to be/do something new. My last year in sports was my Freshman year in high school (around 1992). By then the streets encompassed my mind.

So, coming into prison I entered with a little bit of love for sports. But, I had a different personal legend to unfold, so I slowly began to drift from that interest. As I began to become politically and culturally conscious the more recidivistic aspects of prison began to heavily reflect off of me. A strong contrast comes to light when a man steps outside of the prison molds.

Facing an injustice the only thing that I began to get obsessive about was how to get heard and be free, and as the saying goes- you can’t serve 2 gods. Sports, as you know, becomes a way of life. You monitor it, you almost come to breathe it. It’s not just about watching a game, but knowing the stats, knowing the colleges they came from, knowing their proneness to injuries, etc.. All of this becomes relevant due to the fact that 9 times out of 10 there’s money on these games. Sports becomes a way of life in prison, because it becomes a way of survival. For men that don’t have family or friends to help them financially this becomes an income, and at the same time it becomes a way to occupy your time. That’s another sad story in itself, but it’s the root to many men’s obsession with sports.

I also began to observe the way sports is used as a crutch for a sense of pseudo-pride. In prison, due to being stripped of you humanity, man cling to anything they can to give them a sense of identity. The spectrum varied intensely- it could be keeping a pet snake in your cell, it could be wearing an earring you’re not supposed to, keeping your hair trimmed a certain way when you’re not supposed to, and then there’s the more intense levels of rolling with the gangs or becoming interested in religion, politics, etc.. More times than not sports becomes a crutch.

Seeing this, sports became something that I avoided. It was just another weapon in the arsenal of ignorance and mental oppression. It was another part of the term we call- "penitentiary poli-tricks." These are tricky games, rules and concepts whose function only dilute and separate prisoner power. Therefore, I began a self-induced process to undergo sports amnesia. I didn’t watch it, I didn’t even listen to it, I didn’t gamble on it and didn’t entertain conversation about it. I even extended that to the city I was from. Not wanting to be belligerent in conversation if a person asked me where I was from I would tell them. I didn’t mind the casual conversation. But, I made sure to keep the lines drawn. There’s a comfort zone that rises and while interacting with each other and joking ones, while playing the dozens on each other, will way things like- "Aww, that fool must be from Dallas talking like that. You know how them fools from Dallas is," or "that sounds like a Knicks fan over there, you know them dudes is throwed off anyway." The cities and teams become protracting devices often-times for subliminal feelings and thoughts. This really becomes so when someone has lost a gambling bet and what often comes out as- "Man, them damn Spurs ain’t shit. To hell with them Spurs,"- usually translates to ­ "Man, fuck you." And this has been the cause of numerous prison riots across the kountry.

This is why when I’m approached with the city pride think I let an individual know straight from the outset- I don’t represent cities, I represent ideologies. I don’t care about any city or State in this kountry, because the only thing they’ve done is railroaded me and ain’t none of these teams donating to my Defense Fund, so they don’t exist in my world- That’s a truth that can’t be rebuttled. But for many, whom are hopeless and still lost in their lower-selves, sports is a mighty ruler in their lives.

In 2000 Texas’ death row was moved to a new unit due to a death row prison escape in 1998. As a result Texas officials stripped us of everything we had- work program, group rec, arts and crafts and TV’s. That has lasted up until today and those continued conditions was the spark for the creation of DRIVE (drivemovement.org) which was a protest coalition I helped create. But, having no TV’s doesn’t stop the sports lovers. They go into their radios and find ways to wire it up and catch TV stations by radio, so the love of the game continues.

For a prisoner who has become politicalized I have a very hardline mentality- so things like sports, gambling, drinking, fooling with guards (in friendly manners) don’t exist for me. Because this goes against the grain of the norm I become a target not only for guards, but for inmates as well. From years of repression and humiliation (just like slavery) there is an enjoyed monotony.

I wanted to say that my favorite part of the book was the interview with Mumia. Mumia just has this way of taking the most complex of issues and making it seem so simple and understandable. I was even drawing my own parallels throughout your book- for example I saw the censoring of the 2 Live Crew in what David Stern is doing to his NBA Players. And if we wanted to stretch it, what Stern is doing is on the edges of old Apartheid/Jim Crow laws where you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t go here or there. Everyday in this kountry we see things that we thought was Rights being rolled back. Even my case is an example of where they’re trying to execute me, because they say I should "anticipate" something and now they’ve passed laws to make repeate sex offenders eligible for the death penalty. Pretty soon we’ll be back to the old Emmitt Till days where you get murdered for looking at the wrong person (system wise).

And so, all of this ties into a deeper issue. For those of us in these movements we have strong allies in the athletic field. You did a great job highlighting Roberto Clemente and Etan Thomas. I have even tried to reach out to Etan. I think for those of us in the movement we have to start making demands from athletes (and rappers too). Athletes have the money and platforms. I’m sure that many fear going through what Carlos Delgado went through, but in this day and age stances must be made. It’s never easy to make them, but we, as a people, must stop feeling uncomfortable to stand on what we know is right. We must not feel uncomfortable to ask for things back from persons that benefit from us so much. We have to find more Etan’s and create coalitions. They must become serious and passionate like CEDP members. And when one try to silence them, like they did Delgado, we will let their bias and racist be reflected on their own.

"Athletes, Artist and Activist: from solidarity to power" is the next book you should work on. We have to connect the Glovers, Etans, dead prezs and Fred Hampton Jrs; also the Delgado’s, Welfare Poet’s, and other Latin movements. And then we have to take that internationally building with ones like Chavez and other countries open for progressive change. We have to put challenges up like Dennis Brutus did with SANROC.

Speaking of such, though I don’t know where it was initiated from, I have a great feeling that you probably had your hands in it, and that was the Jocks for Justice petition done on my behalf. That touched me greatly and whomever is responsible I’d like to thank them from the bottom of my heart. I’ve read Dennis Brutus’ work and I was always enchanted by the photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It’s time to bring this new generation out.

You wield power, because you have vision and like Baldwin said- "Where there is no vision the people perish." I only wanted to share a piece of my journey with you and want to continue to be a pebble in the pond. Though I wanted to save your book as a collectors item since you signed it I’m going to try to circulate it around here and see what I can spark in these dry prairies.

Brother, I wish you much success in all that you do and will pray that your work opens more eyes and empowers even more minds. It’s been a great blessing for me to have met you, even in this limited fashion. Revolutionary Love to you!

In Sprit/Strength/&Struggle

Haramia Ki Nassar