Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rob Will: Egypt and Life on Death-Row

                                “All art worthy of the name is a reminder, in one way
                                or another, that to be true to ourselves, we must transcend
                                our human nature. The traditional painter thus depicts
                                the face of a man with human features subtly but distinctly
                                transfigured; and in a parallel way, at the hands of a
                                traditional architect, stones are seen to lose their heaviness,
                                and to become vibrant with the spirit.”
                                                     - Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din, Symbol and Archetype

Egypt: pure beauty and brilliance! I’ve always been inspired when hearing of righteous social struggle but what is happening in Egypt is absolutely phenomenal. I heard a commentator—who is a professor who specializes in Middle-Eastern politics—state that the revolution in Egypt is the most significant event to happen in the Middle East in the last 100years. I don’t know if I agree with that assertion, but the events unfolding in Egypt are indeed surely one of the absolute most meaningful events to occur in the last century in the Middle East and the entire Arab world.

Earlier I heard a report from the journalist and author Robert Fisk in which he talked about an event he witnessed in Tahrir Square. The protesters were holding strong with the Egyptian army posted up at the entrance to the Square. There has been much talk of the role of the army in the current sociopolitical situation. While a dichotomy can be drawn between the army and the centralized Mubarak government there are indeed important and undeniable links between the two. I don’t know why the media hasn’t been talking about this, but Mubarak is the product of the Egyptian military; he was the head of the Air Force before becoming president. Well, the role of the military in the current situation seems to be very conflicted, unclear and constantly evolving.

So, Robert Fisk—who is a brilliant journalist by the way—watched a young soldier sitting on top of an army tank. He looked overwhelmed with conflicting emotions and then he suddenly burst into tears and jumped down from the tank and threw his arms around one of the protesters. Beautiful!

This reminded me of something that happened here a few years ago. This was back when Tony Egbuna Ford had an execution date and we were both engaged in a campaign of non-violent direct action protest against Warden Hirsch—or Director Hirsch as Reginald [Blanton, executed Oct. 2009] used to call him—or Tyrant Hirsch as Kenneth [Foster] used to call him—came up with the brilliant super-security cell right above Egbuna. Why do oppressive individuals in positions of power always engage in actions that are counterproductive to their interests?—All this did was greatly advance our protest strategy.

One day I committed a peaceful direct action and was repeatedly hit with Crowd Control Riot Gas and left completely naked in an empty cell. Shift change came and a younger officer who had been here for probably three years came by doing count. I was out of the cell at the very end of the run. “Name and Number…alright,” Knock, knock. “Hey, wake up, count time, name and number; O.K.” and on down the run she went until she got to my cell:

Officer: Name and—what the hell, Will? Why don’t you have any clothes on,
               don’t you hear me doing count?

Me: Well, yes, of course I do but I don’t have any clothes to wear because they
        gassed me earlier and the good officers on first shift seemed to think I didn’t
        need any other clothes after they ripped the gas-covered ones off me! Or,
        well, actually the C.O.s were going to give me some but the ever-so-
        benevolent Warden Hirsch wouldn’t allow them to.

Officer: Uh, O.K., I was about to say I’ve never known you to disrespect any
              women officers. I heard about someone getting gassed but I thought that
              was on F-pod….

Then, she went on a bit of a tirade about how she was tired of all the “protest bullshit”, tired of the extra work and all of the supervisors getting onto the C.O.s. Quite a Kafkaesque scene unfolded: There I was covered in riot gas viciously burning up, completely naked. The officer standing in front of my cell with her clipboard, paperwork and pen and we began debating about the protest we were engaged in and the death penalty. She was spewing forth a bunch of the typical nonsense:
“Y’all just need to follow the rules and the death penalty is the law, etc., etc., etc.” I kept combating all of her illogical points with valid counterpoints and of course, cognitive dissonance ensued followed by rationalization.

My comrade Gabriel [Gonzalez] calls what I do “gettin’ my white Malcolm X on”—Perhaps a “Carl Rogers-esque, humanistic, Jungian, White Malcolm X” or something. I don’t know but I do know how to talk to people. At one point she was particularly worked up, thrusting her pen into her clipboard to emphasize an exclamatory word but I cut her off mid-sentence with something like this: “I don’t think in your heart and mind you really believe half of what you just said, but I’ll tell you what—when you go downstairs to do count I want you to look at Tony Ford. That man is scheduled to die soon; you’ve seen his mom out there at visitation, she’s a good woman who loves her son. Tony has a solid innocence claim, but even if he is not innocent, in the years that you have been here you’ve seen how Ford is. He doesn’t act like an idiot, doesn’t harass y’all female officers, he’s a good dude. When you go down there LOOK at him, he’s a human being, just like you; Look at him not as a last name and TOC number but as a person.”

I do believe this was said in a rather impassioned manner. I think I was expecting a Rush Limbaugh-esque ranting response but that is not what happened. She was completely still and just looked at me in complete silence. One, two, three, maybe four seconds passed and then she started crying. Crying? This seems rather absurd but I guess this was the immediate response I had to, having someone crying in front of
me: “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” And choking back her tears she said, “I, I just can’t work here anymore” and left. I think what happened with the Egyptian Army officer and the correction officer, represent a very similar cathartic experience. Even when people have been heavily indoctrinated by an oppressive system they can still be reached. There is hope for almost anyone. The human experience is a collective experience shared by all and most people can internalize this realization.

There are so many beautiful things happening in Egypt. This is a true grassroots movement, a genuine non-violent revolution. The Mubarak thugs have been attacking the peaceful protesters with stones. I heard one report where a journalist came upon an area in Tahrir Square where a huge pile of the stones were piled up surrounded by peaceful protesters who were chanting, “Peacefully! Peacefully” We must protest peacefully!” A Life and resistance to oppression is a Life of Art and Humanity is the canvas. And on this canvas stones can be made to lose their heaviness and to become vibrant with the Spirit; a transformational Spirit, the Spirit of a Living Love for one’s fellow man, for humanity. The spirit of the Egyptian people, the spirit of those who look to the horizon of the future to see a better, a more just, and a more Human world.


Rob Will

You can find out about Rob’s case at http://www.freerobwill.org/ or http://www.nodeathpenalty.org/new_abolitionist/february-2011-issue-53/rob-will-innocent-and-fighting-texas-death-row

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