Last week, I shared a glimpse of Willie Francis’ 1947 account of his own botched execution. I argued that anyone who wants to understand the death penalty must engage with the testimony of people who are facing state execution.
Today, I will share a glimpse of another text in Katy Ryan’s important new book, Demands of the Dead: Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States.
Steve Champion, now Adisa Akanni Kamara, is an inmate on death row at San Quentin. He has been in prison for 30 years, since he was 18 years old. His essay, “The Sword into a Pen,” narrates his transformation from a gangbanger into an intellectual, poet, storyteller, and activist.
Together with Anthony Ross, now Ajani Addae Kamara, and Stanley “Tookie” Williams, he read and studied work by Plato and Fanon, Heidegger and Che Guevara, Marx and Machiavelli. “We had gone from thugs to bookworms,” he writes (65). How did this transformation happen?
They built up a library by writing to local bookstores for donations (something that would be impossible in prisons today). They held spelling bees and vocabulary-building exercises, with 25 push-ups as punishment for mistakes. They organized seminars on political theory, African history, philosophy, and spirituality. They engaged in “negative dialectics,” testing the limits of work by philosophers such as Kant and Descartes. And they began to write, critique, and re-write their lives and their identities in poems, essays, short stories, and memoirs.
“In this respect we also became each other’s therapist, each other’s journal. Every day I felt a shift in my perspective and awareness. I was deconstructing myself, redefining who I was” (64).
This self-deconstruction was also a collaborative re-construction: “This consciousness is grounded in altruistic commitment, responsibility, and mutual recognition, and we found ourselves living it and bringing new meaning to the idea of being your “brother’s keeper.”” (66).
“[W]e were modeling transformative brotherhood” (66). The prison cell became “a laboratory, monastery, and university” (69).
Champion and Ross did not go unnoticed by the prison administration. They were labeled as “leaders” in a system designed to break up leadership and solidarity among prisoners, even (or especially) when it supports the mutual empowerment of prisoners. Champion and Ross were frequently moved to other units or thrown into the ominously-named “Adjustment Center.” This experience of deliberate disruption is common among imprisoned radical intellectuals, such as Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3.
What sense does it make to execute someone like Steve Champion? It is hard to imagine anyone who has done more to transform himself and others, both for his own sake and for the sake of those who might otherwise choose violence as a means of securing power and respect.
But unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine. Take, for example, Champion’s fellow prisoner and bookworm, Tookie Williams. Tookie wrote two prison memoirs and a series of children’s books, called “Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence.” He worked tirelessly to appeal his conviction and to make a case for clemency. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, and for the Nobel Prize for literature once. He was executed by the state of California on December 13, 2005.
Tookie’s words played from a tape recorder at his funeral: "Teach them how to avoid our destructive footsteps. Teach them to strive for higher education. Teach them to promote peace and teach them to focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods that you, others, and I helped to destroy."
To execute Steve Champion would be to side with this violence and destruction, against one of the most powerful and effective teachers we could hope for.
To read more of Steve Champion’s work, see his book, Dead to Deliverance, the PEN website (also here), and the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty website. Listen to him speak here. If you know of any other online sources for Steve/Adisa's work, please post them below in the comments section!