Revolution Online, September 23, 2008
The Meaning of New Orleans Mayor’s “Straight to Angola” Threat
The storms caused by nature, in the form of Hurricane Gustav, passed over New Orleans with minimum damage, although other areas of Louisiana and Texas sustained more wreckage. But the harm caused by the human ideological storms, reversing the just verdicts of the people and blaming the oppressed for their oppression, is still very real.
The same day that the last 81 unidentified people who died as a result of Katrina three years ago were buried, New Orleans Mayor Nagin issued what Newsweek magazine called “a special message [directed] at would-be looters”: “‘You will not get a pass this time.’ And those caught won’t be shipped to a mere parish jail; they’ll be sent to the state’s notorious Angola Prison. ‘I want to make sure every potential looter understands that,’ said Nagin. ‘You will go directly to Angola Prison and God bless you when you get there.’”
This statement is so loaded with false and reactionary assumptions and outright threats, it takes some work to deconstruct it.
For starters—who are the real criminals behind the horror suffered by the people in New Orleans three years ago? Nagin didn’t say he was sending George Bush to Angola. Or the then head of FEMA, Michael Brown (remember Bush’s infamous remark, “You’re doing a great job Brownie”?). Or the members of Congress or Army Corps of Engineers who refused to fund and shore up the levees so they could withstand the long-expected Category 4 or 5 hurricane. What about the Gretna sheriffs who fired their weapons over the heads of people seeking safe ground above the filthy rising water—seems that was legitimate protection of property values against “those people.” And Nagin didn’t give himself up for a trip to Angola for failing to make any preparations to evacuate those without cars and parking the fleet of school buses in low-lying areas where they were promptly overcome by flood waters.
No, he threatened the “looters.” The people who day after day desperately scrambled to find food, water, and Pampers as the waters rose, confronted by the armed National Guard troops and Blackwater mercenaries (flown in over night from Iraq) who roamed the streets threatening and gunning people down. I remember seeing Oprah interview a young man on the streets of New Orleans whom she accused of “commandeering” a boat. He basically answered: Yeah, I commandeered a boat. And I saved 200 people. I’m not sorry at all.
Nagin was not alone in rendering the verdict that the real problem in New Orleans devastated by Katrina was the masses of people who lived on their rooftops for 3-4 days or were crammed into the Superdome like slaves on the lower decks of a slave ship. On August 13, 2008, just two weeks before Gustav moved ashore, a judge dropped the charges against the seven cops who were indicted for first-degree murder and attempted murder for gunning down two Black men and wounding four others, all unarmed people coming across the Danziger bridge to get food at a grocery store on September 4, 2005. The very fact that these cops were even charged with first degree murder and were facing the death penalty reveals how sharply right was seen to be on the people’s side, as the whole world watched in horror while the Bush regime and local government refused to rescue and protect the people and, instead, unleashed the armed might of the state against them.
This time, as I watched the TV coverage of Gustav, I saw those same Humvees zooming through the deserted streets, full of National Guard waving weapons, as MSNBC reporters commented that anyone arrested for breaking curfew would be considered a looter. I noticed no one, from Nagin to the press, making any reference to “due process”—no trials, no habeas corpus—just the litany repeated again and again, “You’re going straight to Angola.”
Angola Prison—Special Corner of Hell on Earth
So what does “Straight to Angola” mean, what is the coded language here, and why did Nagin end with a sarcastic “God bless you when you get there”? That’s because Angola Penitentiary is a special corner of hell on earth, especially for Black people, and stands as a concentrated expression of what it means to be Black in Louisiana and this country in general.
I recommend everyone read the two-part interview (posted online as a single article) with David Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, in issues 132 and 133 of Revolution newspaper. He presents a vivid picture of the little-known history of post-Civil War economic buildup of the South through the coerced and unpaid labor of Black men in the form of convict labor and road gangs. This served a dual purpose of creating wealth for the economic transformation of the South, and suppressing and terrorizing the newly freed slaves, as the systematic oppression of Black people, and the racist ideas to support that, forged during slavery were recast and reinforced for new conditions. Blackmon explains this process: “What began to happen in the South, particularly after federal troops were removed in 1877…the state passed laws which began to effectively criminalize Black life and to create a situation in which African American men found it impossible not to be in violation of some misdemeanor statute at almost all times. And the most broadly applied of those was that it was against the law if you were unable to prove at any given moment that you were employed. So vagrancy statutes were used to arrest thousands of Black men, even though thousands of white men could have been arrested on the same charges but they hardly ever were. Then, once arrested, the judicial system had to be re-tooled in such a way as to coerce huge numbers of men into commercial enterprises as forced workers through the judicial system.”
The three most notorious of the deep South prisons, where Black men were forced into “slavery by another name,” were Atmore in Alabama, Parchman in Mississippi, and Angola in Louisiana. And today, although some features have changed, they serve a very similar function.
Before the Civil War, prisons in the South served mainly as detention for white debtors, while enslaved Blacks were beaten, whipped, and killed at will by their owners. In Louisiana, the prison system was transformed in 1869 when a former Confederate officer, Major Samuel Lawrence James, leased Angola, consolidating several plantations covering about 8,500 acres in southwest Louisiana, and used it to run a business that provided convict labor. Slave quarters became cells, and some of the first guards were ex-Confederate soldiers. Many prisoners died within a few years from beatings or starvation. No longer creating wealth as human property, the ex-slaves generated more profits if they were simply worked to death and others compelled to take their place. The convicts farmed, picked cotton, mined, cut timber, and built and repaired levees on the Mississippi River. The 1901 Annual Report of the Louisiana State Penitentiary stated that 732 convicts died in Angola between 1894 and 1901, about 100 a year.
In 1901, shortly after the death of Major James, the prisons went from private to state ownership, but little changed. Brutal conditions with no reprieve, gun-toting “trustee” guards given privileges to terrorized their fellow prisoners, and the repeated murders of prisoners by guards all combined to give Angola the reputation of the bloodiest prison in the U.S. In 1952, to protest their conditions, 31 Angola prisoners cut their own Achilles heels, a very painful irreversible form of self-crippling that made them useless to their tormentors.
By 1969, a hundred years after it was founded, Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary (named after the part of Africa from which many of the slaves had come) had been expanded to 18,000 acres, but retained several key features. It was a straight-up plantation, with the power and social relations of slavery days, where 75% or more of the inmates were Black. An added feature was a gruesome system of sexual slavery, where new prisoners were bought and sold on arrival. Increasingly, the imprisoned came from growing urban centers, and they served their sentences far from the support of their families and community.
Even to this day, the prisoners at Angola work the land—growing soybeans, corn, and wheat and picking cotton. Many Angola prisoners have noted that today this labor can be better accomplished by machines, and yet they are forced into the fields every morning, often for 17 hours a day and 65 hours a week, where they bend their backs in grueling hand labor for 2-4 cents an hour. In one more cruel irony, half of these earnings are held in an account for the time when the prisoners get out. Yet Louisiana sentencing guidelines dictate that most of these men will never go home. Cathy Fontenot, Angola’s assistant warden, estimates 97% of those currently in Angola will die there.*
The Angola 3
In the early ’70s, the Black Panther Party was formed in New Orleans and within months viciously attacked by the police, resulting in 24 major felony arrests. During that intense time, three young Black prisoners joined the Black Panther Party and led protests in Angola against conditions there. Known as the Angola 3, they have spent over 30 years in solitary confinement, a record in this country, although we have yet to see how many years and what level of torment awaits the many prisoners currently in segregation in the Supermax prisons and seg units throughout the U.S. prison system. Robert “King” Wilkerson, who joined the BPP while in the Orleans Parish Prison, was sent to solitary shortly after he reached Angola, charged with a murder that happened in Angola before he even got there. He was released in 2001. The other two of the Angola 3 had spent 36 years in solitary for murdering a prison guard when they were released to maximum security this year. In November 2006, the State Judicial Commission issued a rare 27-page recommendation that Herman Wallace’s conviction be overturned on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. In July of this year, Albert Woodfox’s conviction was overturned on the same grounds, but Louisiana prosecutors are determined that he remain in prison for life and plan to retry him for a third time.
The experience of Angola 3 and their fellow captives “down on the Farm” is well known to the basic youth of New Orleans and the other 11 urban parishes who continually replenish the 5000 prisoners there. Louisiana is the state with the largest percentage of its population in prison—in a country that has the largest prison population in the world. These prisoners are part of the 2.3 million people in the U.S., mainly Black and Latino, who make up the generations of oppressed youth who have no future but death or jail; part of the one in 32 adults either in prison, on probation, or parole (as reported in the Bureau of Prison Statistics for 2005), thus finding themselves directly under the control of the system. How reminiscent of the ex-slaves who were coerced into convict labor if they were unable to show that they were “answerable to a white man.”
Those to whom Mayor Nagin’s threat was issued know exactly what he meant when he threatened, “You will go straight to Angola.”
* "Slavery Haunts America’s Plantation Prisons," by Maya Schenwar, August 28, 2008, http://www.truthout.org/article/slavery-haunts-americas-plantation-prisons. [back]
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