L’Uni Tunes ha il piacere di ospitare la storia di Watani Stiner, originariamente pubblicata sul magazine “The Backseat”. Attivista per i diritti degli afro americani, Stiner viene ingiustamente accusato di aver ucciso due membri delle pantere nere. Dopo un periodo di prigionia, evade dal carcere e si rifugia in Sud America. Tornerà negli Stati Uniti solo molto tempo dopo, accettando di scontare gli anni di prigionia rimanenti pur di permettere ai suoi figli di rientrare in patria. La sua storia è l’occasione per riflettere sulla condizione degli afroamericani negli Stati Uniti degli anni sessanta e in quelli di oggi.
Sara Grossman· May 8, 2015 · This piece originally appeared in the Backseat magazine.
Watani Stiner was numb. He looked on as his mother, with tears running down her face, begged the judge not to kill her two eldest children.
It was the fall of 1969 and Watani, then 21, and his brother George, 22, were facing the prospect of state-mandated death after being found guilty of conspiring to murder two Black Panthers at UCLA earlier that year.
The brothers were members of US Organization, a Los Angeles-based black nationalist group that was an ideological rival to the Black Panther Party between the mid-1960s and early ’70s. Unlike the Panthers, however, who focused mainly on spurring an immediate revolution at any cost, US focused much of its effort on building a unique African American culture and identity.
The rivalry reached a tipping point on Jan. 17, 1969. The Black Student Union at UCLA had successfully lobbied for the creation of a new Black Studies Department on campus, and the Panthers and US Organization each had their eyes on different candidates to lead the department. US had pushed through a candidate who had already been approved by UCLA leadership, but the Panthers wanted their man to be considered. The two groups, along with representatives from the Black Student Union, scheduled a meeting to negotiate the situation.
Panthers lined up on one side of the room in UCLA’s Campbell Hall while US members lined up on the other.
Things spun out of control towards the end of the meeting. As Watani remembers it, US member Harold Tawala was pestering Panther Elaine Brown, although both knew each other and were friendly. Brown complained to two fellow Panthers, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, prompting them to jump in and defend Brown, hitting Tawala with pistols. One of their guns went off, and the packed room erupted in chaos. US member Chochezi Claude Hubert began shooting at the Panthers from the doorway.
In the end, more than 20 shots were fired as witnesses frantically dived beneath chairs or sprinted toward the exit.
Blood poured from Watani’s shoulder, hit by a stray bullet that was later determined to have been fired from a Panther gun. He was lucky though — Carter and Huggins were both killed in the melee.
Although Watani says he was not armed at the time, he (and four other members of US) were accused of plotting to murder members of the rival group. Hubert, the shooter, was never apprehended.
Watani and George denied involvement in the shooting from the moment they were accused. They never thought they would be convicted of anything since, as Watani says, both were unarmed.
Yet, here they were, just a few months later, sitting at a sentencing hearing after being found guilty of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, largely based on the testimony of a few Panthers who claimed Watani and his co-defendants were armed at the time of the shooting.
The judge, Malcolm Lucas, ultimately acquiesced to their mother’s pleas. The brothers would not be sentenced to death, he ruled. Instead, they would face life in prison with the possibility of parole.
What happened over the next 46 years of Watani’s life illustrates the way black lives mattered in the United States in the 20th century, as well as how these ways have changed — and the ways they haven’t — in the 21st.
The first time we met outside of prison, Watani was walking with a cane, slowly and a bit shakily, like the old man he had aged into behind bars. His dress was impeccable, though, color-coordinated and topped with a stylish black fedora — he was clearly relishing the freedom to wear whatever his heart desired after decades in prison blue.
Watani Stiner — infamous prisoner, black nationalist, prison escapee, writer — is my friend. At 67, he is nearly 50 years older than me, not to mention a recently released prisoner from San Quentin State Prison, located across the Bay from UC Berkeley, where I study. I am a 22-year-old white female, also from L.A., but never a member of any particularly radical organizations.
But, like Watani, I am a writer, which is how we met more than a year ago at San Quentin, where I was a volunteer editor for the San Quentin News, a newspaper run by inmates from behind bars, and Watani a staff writer. Like most of the men on the paper, Watani was older and full of wisdom, even if he wasn’t particularly prone to lecturing or offering unsolicited advice.
I read in various newspapers that Watani had been paroled from San Quentin in January, thanks to a 2014 California policy seeking to reduce the state’s prison overcrowding by permitting the release of inmates who are at least 60 years old and have spent at least 25 years in prison. I finally got ahold of what was possibly his cellphone number and called it, not sure if he would be interested in meeting up or even if he remembered who I was. The phone rang a few times and then went to voicemail. (How good was he with cellphones? I couldn’t help but wonder — they weren’t very popular when he returned to prison two decades ago after escaping to South America). I left a message explaining who I was and asking if he would be interested in letting me write about him for an online magazine I had put together with some friends. I didn’t think I’d hear back, at least for a while.
About 20 minutes later, my phone began to vibrate. It was Watani. Of course I’d love to talk, he said, come over whenever you want.
That was how I found myself in a barren office at a men’s home in Oakland, waiting for Watani to enter.
When he did amble in, the whole room brightened. He gave me a lengthy hug, plus one to my friend who tagged along. He asked how I was doing, and I told him it was actually my 22nd birthday. “Happy birthday to youuuu….” he enthusiastically sang, in his characteristically hushed voice. He launched into the full version of the song — not just a clause, the full Happy Birthday song. Because that’s the kind of guy Watani is: the kind that sings a girl he barely knows Happy Birthday, even though it was he who had just attained freedom after decades in a closet-sized cell.
To figure out exactly how someone like Watani ended up in that cramped cell, I called Clayborne Carson, professor of American History and the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Carson has devoted his career to studying African American protest movements and political thought during the postwar period. He was also at UCLA at the time of the shooting, although not in the room when it happened.
He did, however, attend an earlier meeting with the two groups a few days prior to the shooting and witnessed the deep mistrust between them.
“[The Black Panthers] were particularly hostile towards cultural nationalists. They considered themselves revolutionary nationalists and considered US to be not really engaged in the struggle,” he told me, adding that he had friends in both groups. “When the shooting happened, I wasn’t completely surprised, because I knew people on campus were carrying guns, and there was just a lot of antipathy between the two groups.”
Carson also noted that the FBI played a role in heightening the tension between the Panthers and US, as the Bureau viewed nationalist parties, especially the Black Panthers, as serious threats to national security and stability. Just a few years earlier, the two groups had been on relatively friendly terms — after all, “they were both recruiting people from the same neighborhoods,” Carson said.
Carson told me that it was “clear that that [they] exploited the tensions that were already there.” The 1975 Church Committee hearings later publicized evidence that FBI agents had deliberately stoked tensions between the two groups, including sending demeaning cartoons and threats to each side as though they had come from the rival group.
In a memorandum from the Los Angeles Field Office to FBI Headquarters, for example, the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office:
“The Los Angeles Division is aware of the mutually hostile feelings harbored between the organizations and the first opportunity to capitalize on the situation will be maximized. It is intended that US Inc. will be appropriately and discreetly advised of the time and location of BPP activities in order that the two organizations might be brought together and thus grant nature the opportunity to take her due course.”
“Their tactics would not have been nearly that effective if someone had prevailed and said, ‘Look, you guys are on the same side,’ ” Carson said.
While US and the Panthers had their problems, Watani told me, they were largely ideological. He did, however, acknowledge weaknesses in both organizations, which allowed the FBI to easily exploit them.
“I’m a COINTELPRO survivor,” Watani told me more than once, referring to the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, which aimed to discredit and destabilize American political organizations between 1956 and 1971. (Watani was recently invited to give a lecture at San Francisco State University about his experience with COINTELPRO.)
Being sentenced to life in prison “was a shocking feeling,” Watani said. “Even though we prepared for [things like going to jail], even though we knew a lot of us was gonna die, we had to sacrifice… [But] when they say guilty, I don’t care how strong you think you are. That’s a hollow feeling.”
Watani said his feelings were mixed during the trial. He believed it was tragic that two innocent people lost their lives, but he also saw the deaths as casualties of a larger war, victims for the larger fight for humanity. He was young and maybe a bit naive, Watani told me. He thinks, for example, it was not in his self-interest to behave the way he did in court, dressing and acting aggressively and repeatedly making the “Black Power” fist during proceedings.
“I see some things I wouldn’t do now, but if I [hadn’t done those things,] I wouldn’t be in the position I am now,” he said. “Life is a lesson more than a letdown.”
In 2012, Watani met with Ericka Huggins, the wife of John Huggins, one of the men who was killed at UCLA. He didn’t apologize for any specific thing, but expressed remorse for the warrior mindset that had pervaded both groups at the time.
“She understood. She was also in that warrior mindset,” he said. “She shared a lot about her journey, which mirrors a lot of mine. She remembered when the organizations were in harmony.” They talked for four or five hours as part of a restorative justice session that Watani calls one of the best decisions of his life.
Watani sees his younger self as a man who was fighting for what he believed, even if it was for some amorphous revolution that remains unrealized and largely misunderstood by the American public.
“I have no regrets about that person,” he said. “As a youngster, he took a lot of chances and was kinda risky. If I had to do it again, I would, because I learned so much. Even prison built me into the person I am today.”
Watani was not born “Watani.” His mother, a nurse, named her child Larry, the second of six children with her husband, George. Larry was born in Houston, which, in 1948, was a decidedly segregated city; blacks drank from segregated fountains and sat in segregated restaurants. Every so often, young Larry would head down to Mr. Fontano’s drugstore and enter quietly through the “colored” door on the side. At movies, he and his black friends would sit in the balcony. They were out of sight and out of mind for the white residents of his community.
Although Larry’s father was highly educated — he held a doctorate in mathematics — he struggled with alcoholism after returning from World War II and unleashed his rage and regret on those closest to him. Watani told me he had two fathers: a loving one who woke up in the morning, and an alcoholic stranger who returned at night.
His mother decided that she had had enough when he was 7 years old and took her two oldest children — George and Larry — to Los Angeles to live with her sister. Like many other African Americans who came to California during the Second Great Migration, when southern blacks began to arrive in western states to escape Jim Crow laws, they ended up in Watts, a community in South L.A.
Although not a city that enforced Jim Crow laws, Los Angeles in the 1950s was highly segregated (and remains fairly segregated today), as housing policies such as redlining and racially restrictive covenants, coupled with garden-variety racism, forced blacks into limited neighborhoods. (Although the Supreme Court ruled these housing practices unconstitutional in 1948, they continued in practice for years.) This form of systemic racism led to concentrated poverty for blacks and other minorities, as well as generally reduced life opportunities for those who lived in these communities. African Americans like Watani had limited options when it came not only to housing but also to employment and education.
This low quality of life boiled into growing tensions, and in 1965, Watts erupted in widespread rioting after a violent incident involving LAPD officers and an African American man. The rioting lasted six days and resulted in 34 dead, 1,000 injured and an estimated $40 million in property damage. When Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Los Angeles in the days following the riot, he argued that the causes were social and economic.
“The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing and general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence,” King said, telling reporters that this outburst was ‘‘the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been bypassed by the progress of the past decade.’’
Carson, the professor at Stanford, said that there was great anger at this time that change had come to the South, in the form of civil rights reforms, but that little had changed for blacks in the North.
“Things just weren’t there,” Carson told me. “There wasn’t a lot of economic opportunity [in the form of] jobs and housing. Conditions were pretty dire in ways that haven’t changed that much since.”
Watani was in Watts during “the revolt.” “It was a turning point,” he said. “There was something in the air that I had to be a part of.”
After graduating from Manual Arts High School, he married his high school sweetheart and, like many other African Americans in Los Angeles, found employment in the defense industry, working in a factory making bomb parts for America’s entry into the Vietnam War. He also enrolled at UCLA in 1966.
Young Watani, however, grew increasingly dissatisfied with what he was seeing, in his own life and nationally. The “Autobiography of Malcolm X” opened his eyes to what he saw to be the unfairness of America’s treatment of black folks in society. He was further disgusted at the thought of contributing to the killing of Vietnamese civilians abroad. “My fingerprint was on those bombs,” he told me, and he felt like a traitor.
“When I came out of the [Watts] revolt, I was looking for something,” Watani said. “When I ran across US [Organization,] I was like ‘Wow, this is exactly what I’m looking for.’”
One day, he decided he had had enough and quit his factory job. He could no longer contribute to these atrocities. He would now devote himself entirely to demanding change for people like him, to US Organization.
Watani turned on the TV one day to watch Martin Luther King Jr. speak about nonviolence and turning the other cheek. He was confounded.
“That’s crazy!” he thought, reflecting on all the injustices his people had faced time and time and time again.
Mama, Mama, Negroes are insane
They straighten their hair and don’t know their name
They bleach their skin and act so white
They don’t even have any purpose in life
You see my child it’s a pity and a shame,
that your sick brother doesn’t even know his own name
It’s not his fault, he’s not to blame
The white man robbed him of his Black brain.
-”Mama Mama,” US Organization song
US Organization is today largely lost in the dustbin of popular memory, overshadowed by its larger and more famous cousin, the Black Panther Party. Founded in Los Angeles by Maulana Karenga and a few like-minded individuals in 1965, US Organization, as with most other black nationalist groups, was rooted in a deep sense of alienation from the larger white-dominated society and disgust at its systematic obstruction of black progress through explicitly racist policies (such as the institutional segregation Watani experienced in Houston and the racist housing covenants he encountered in Los Angeles) as well as implicitly racist attitudes and preferences.
Karenga, however, distinguished his views from other black power groups by claiming a distinct guiding philosophy, “cultural nationalism” — a revolutionary movement to reclaim not only power, respect and opportunity for blacks but also to create a sense of shared identity and culture for those who had been stripped of their own sensibilities and had European ones thrust upon them.
“We started changing our names; I became Watani and started identifying with African names, something different than what was imposed on us,” Watani told me.
Karenga, who wore African dashikis and spoke Swahili, was influenced in his political development by the writings of Malcolm X and the Afro-Caribbean postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, who examined the psychological impact of colonialism on a subjugated people.
“The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”
Karenga, however, believed that American slavery was even more culturally devastating than colonialism, because, as Scot Brown wrote in his book “Fighting for US,” which charts the rise and fall of Karenga’s organization, black power groups were “burdened with the responsibility of recovering and reinterpreting lost African customs for a people void of genuine cultural identity.”
“The reason why the black man is such a weak-minded person, why he is so easily led by the white man, is because he has no standards, no culture,” Karenga declared in an interview in 1966. “He doesn’t understand love of black people because he’s a slave-minded person. He can only love his master, and … unless he is imbued with cultural values … he will never be able to do that.”
While US Organization and the Black Panthers shared a guiding belief that blacks must fight against the forces that oppressed them, using violence if necessary, the two groups diverged on the question of culture.
When Watani was growing up, “Africa was Tarzan,” he told me at one of our meetings. “It was a shame we were slaves and we came from there.”
Whereas once they were ashamed of feeling like savages, many African Americans started looking at Africa in a different way, seeing African leaders who were intelligent and powerful. “Africa became our home,” Watani said. “We were no longer Negroes. We were African Americans.”
It was this new black identity and the allure of community that drew Watani to US Organization in 1967. With barely enough money for rent and two kids and a wife at home, Watani found a sense of purpose and spirit in US Organization, as well as a cadre of strong, intellectual and revolutionary black men and women who were leading the way to a brighter future for people like him.
Two years later, Watani found himself shot and bleeding on the UCLA campus, a victim, he would later say, of the larger struggle for black humanity.
Watani was nervous the first time he walked through San Quentin’s gates, although he resolved not to show any fear. He had to prove that he was undaunted by prison life, as the older guys were testing his toughness and resolve, curious to see if Watani was worthy of being one of “them.” He waited it out, and over time he gained the respect of his peers, many of whom were fellow black nationalists who were still fighting for the revolution.
Many of the Black Panthers in San Quentin had become disenchanted with what was going on on the outside. Some of them came to prison because they were doing work for the Party, and they felt they had been abandoned, Watani told me.
Things began to change for Watani as well. “In prison, you lose track of reality,” he said. “You look outside through the media and see either chaos or revolution.” Like the imprisoned Panthers, he became disenchanted with the black power movement and US Organization in particular, which was then beginning to crumble from within, torn apart by internal conflicts and rampant sexism (Karenga, US Organization’s founder, spent some years in prison for felonious assault and false imprisonment of two women.)
Watani threw himself into fighting for a different revolution behind bars. As black power organizations began to crumble on the outside, black prisoners were finding great strength and solidarity in their own organizing, protesting indiscriminate abuse by guards, who often intimidated, threatened or attacked inmates at will.
I had trouble fully conceptualizing what Watani was describing, so I called Dan Berger, an assistant professor at the University of Washington at Bothell and the author of a recently published book on black prison organizing in the Civil Rights era.
Conditions inside California prisons became “more political and more politicized” during the late 1960s and ’70s, he told me.
“Prisoners had an increasingly political understanding of their incarceration and of social and political justice,” he said. “There was a growing sense that the guards were a bigger and more immediate problem than other prisoners.”
He described a number of “iconic” cases in which white prison guards brutally attacked or mistreated black prisoners. In one case, a mentally ill prisoner at San Quentin was making a ruckus in his cell when guards entered and attacked the man. They proceeded to spray tear gas in his cell and force the door closed. The man, Fred Billingslea, died from the gas.
In another famous case at Soledad State Prison, prison officials purposely released a group of black nationalist prisoners onto the yard at the same time as a group of white supremacists. Unsurprisingly, fighting soon broke out, and one of the guards, a former army sharpshooter, opened fired on the crowd, killing three black prisoners. For many, it seemed like a clear case of targeted assassination.
As he had done on the outside, Watani jumped right into prison organizing, working to demand improved conditions for black prisoners through various organizations and study groups.
But then he made a serious miscalculation. In 1972, renowned writer Truman Capote came to San Quentin to interview inmates as part of a live television segment on how prisoners think in light of growing prison conflict at the time. Watani, who had been invited to speak live on air, proceeded to take out a list and read the names of all the guards who were abusing prisoners or killing inmates. Capote loved it — it was great TV. The guards, not so much.
It was a pretty stupid thing to do, Watani acknowledges now, and one of the few black guards at San Quentin took him aside and made sure he knew that. There was a hit out on him now, the officer warned. He needed to escape, or the guards would take care of what the state wanted all along.
The officer collaborated with a prison counselor who had also taken a liking to the young revolutionary to arrange for Watani and his brother’s escape.
On March 30, 1974, while on an overnight visit with their parents in a bungalow just outside the main prison facilities, George and Watani vanished into the night.
They left a note for their parents sleeping in the next room. We’re sorry for leaving like this, they wrote, “but circumstances demanded it.” They slipped silently out of the visitors’ bungalow and rushed past a sleeping guard and the ominous houses of prison officials. Hearts pounding, they climbed into a waiting vehicle outside the San Quentin gates. “When I got in the car, I was shaking,” Watani said. “Adrenaline was running; I figured at any moment someone was going to shoot.”
Their destination was Guyana, where the government was readily accepting African American exiles and revolutionaries in the spring of 1974.
Arrangements were made to drive to Memphis, where Watani would fly to South America, to full freedom. It was terrifying and thrilling all at once. Watani and his driver had one close encounter with the police in Little Rock, Arkansas, when a cop stopped Watani’s car for speeding. Watani’s mind was racing; he was furious that the driver had made such a stupid, stupid mistake.
“I’m still thinking, ‘Man, I gotta dash. I’m nervous. This is such a waste! We got out of prison, and this stupid fool decided to drive over the speed limit,” Watani said.
The officer told the driver to follow him to the police station to pay the ticket. “We were sitting in the parking lot, and police are coming in and out,” Watani said. It was a surreal turn of events, although they ultimately drove away safely. “I cussed [the driver] out all the way to Memphis.”
Watani finally made it to Guyana on May 1, 1974. He was picked up at the airport by Herman Ferguson, a close associate of Malcolm X, and was quickly integrated into a group of African American exiles who were guests of the government.
While things were exhilarating in the beginning, Watani soon became disillusioned with what he saw as a corrupt Guyanese government, no different from the tyranny he saw in other countries. Within a few years, the country was falling apart — the economy was shattered, and the government was doing little to fix it. After six years in Guyana, Watani’s anti-government associations were being scrutinized, and he was asked to either support the government or leave the country.
As he had done at other points in his life, Watani decided to flee. He crossed the border into Suriname in 1980, leaving his brother and friends behind. (George has never been apprehended by U.S. authorities.)
He met his second wife, Nisha, in a market in Suriname. He couldn’t understand what she was saying, but he liked how she was saying it. Before long, they began a relationship of sorts: She would teach him Dutch, and he would teach her English.
Watani was 32 when he met Nisha, then 26. Although Watani thought often about his old life and eldest children, he knew he couldn’t reach out to them, as the FBI was watching their behavior closely. (His first wife is still alive today and Watani says they are on good terms.)
Nisha and Watani had six kids together, all born at home with Watani’s help. They lived in the bush close to the Suriname river and survived simply, with no running water or electricity. Watani’s fondest memories of Suriname are uncomplicated ones: sitting outside in the evenings counting shooting stars with his children. “The nighttime was beautiful,” he recalled, “because in the nighttime, the moon looked like you could reach out and touch it.”
But then, as in Guyana, Suriname fell into economic and political instability. Fighting between government forces and a rebel group intensified in 1986, and the day-to-day situation became less and less livable for ordinary people like Watani and his family. Watani could no longer find basic necessities at the store, and his children lacked access to basic services such as health care or education or even just potable water.
One day, a group of government soldiers broke down the door and kicked his family out of their home. The soldiers wanted their house because it was in a prime location close to an airport. Watani was livid — how dare they take what he had worked so hard to build! He began to see the situation as untenable. His children deserved an education, deserved not to live in fear of violence.
His experiences in Guyana and Suriname forced him to re-evaluate his views of governments and of power. He had seen too many times how power had corrupted those who promised to work for the good of all. (Today, he remains skeptical of self-proclaimed leaders and those who claim to speak for movements.)
He knew what he had to do for his family. He just had to convince Nisha.
“The happiest time in my life was in Suriname, riding in boats with my children,” Watani told me. “But I couldn’t provide for them … I didn’t see a future for them.”
In November of 1993, Watani walked into the American Embassy in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, and turned himself in. After extensive negotiations, it was agreed that Watani would return to the U.S., if Nisha — who officially became his wife before Watani was extradited — and their children could come as well.
And so, about two decades after running as far away as he could from San Quentin Prison, Watani returned as a prisoner once more. But this time, it was without the bravado and swagger of his younger revolutionary self. He was mostly just worried about his kids.
This time, things were different.
San Quentin was no longer the hotbed of violence and racial conflict that it was in the ’70s. In the past two decades, the prison had become home to some of the most widely respected programs in the country, including those related to restorative justice, education and the arts.
Watani, too, had changed. His priorities were no longer the revolution but his family, friends and personal development. He was quieter this time, spending most of his days reading, writing and working to bring his kids to the U.S., as American authorities had reneged on their agreement to bring them north.
During that time, Nisha suffered a nervous breakdown, and his children were left to largely fend for themselves. (Nisha passed away in 2010). Watani’s children were ultimately unable to come to the U.S. until 2005, despite advocacy from Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Not being able to see his children is Watani’s greatest sadness — during his first few years back in San Quentin, he couldn’t help but wonder if he had made a horrible mistake.
Further, he was shocked to return to a state of mass incarceration. Watani figured he would return to San Quentin and be released within the next two or three years, since had had already served five before his escape and would have been eligible for parole within seven had he stayed in prison (he was only sentenced to probation, not additional incarceration time, for his escape).
Twenty-one years later, that presumption seems almost quaint.
Watani also no longer associated only with black revolutionaries, and he struck up an unlikely friendship with two white women living in Mill Valley, California. One of the women, Sheilah Glover, was being considered as a juror for his escape trial. Sheilah was ultimately not picked but was so struck by Watani’s humility and dignity that she and her partner, Elaine Belle, began visiting him regularly in prison.
Today, he considers them among his closest friends. “Through all the years of my incarceration they have been my strongest supporters and the life-line to my children,” Watani said. “I am forever grateful for them.”
Elaine never imagined she would be going to San Quentin to visit anybody. “It seemed like a normal thing to do,” she said when I called her one recent afternoon. “Once we met, it was like we’d known each other for a long time.”
At one point, when Elaine was unable to visit Watani regularly, they began writing every week, keeping track of daily gratitudes.
Elaine and her wife are thrilled that Watani can now experience the world beyond San Quentin’s walls. The three maintain a close friendship after 20 years of correspondence. Elaine couldn’t really explain why they were such good friends. He always makes her laugh, she said; it was just a friendship that was meant to be.
As crazy as that might seem, I understand what she was saying. Watani is just the kind of guy you want to be around. He’s a good listener and likes to laugh.
Sitting in the dinky auditorium at the men’s home a few weeks ago, the lights so dim we could barely see each other, I asked Watani the big question on my mind. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked. He thought for a moment, and then responded with a quiet “no.” He wouldn’t be the person he is today without the extraordinary things that have happened in his life.
“When I look at my life, I look at it in parts and sections that feed into each other,” he said. “Life has been in waves. Whatever disappointment I had, [I put behind me,] and I moved into another arena.”
Even spending time in prison has contributed to his intellectual development and personal maturity. At San Quentin, he became a “wise man” of sorts, writing a column for the San Quentin News in which he engaged with young people and talked through their problems.
Even so, Watani says he’s not great at giving advice. He believes he is better at listening and learning. “I don’t want to be the preachy type, but I just like to dialogue with young people,” he said. “We come to our own best answers to things.”
Still, Watani told me it’s important to share experiences and knowledge with young people so they can learn from the mistakes of elders like him. “You do a disservice to young people when you don’t point out [your mistakes],” he said. “They need to know about our mistakes as well as our achievements.”
He wrote his last column, called “An OG Perspective,” last month, discussing the beauty and failures of his revolutionary experience. He discussed the “two tendencies” in the protest movement against racial injustice: the Civil Rights Movement, which “spoke to the conscience of the nation” to facilitate self-examination and change, and the Black Power movement, which demanded America change or face severe consequences.
“Examining my own life experience, I’ve come to realize that those consequences inevitably lead to more violence and only promote a perpetual cycle of unintended consequences,” Watani wrote. “Being involved in the Black Power movement allowed me to reclaim and reconnect with my history, instilled in me a sense of racial pride, self-respect and a commitment to self-defense and made me feel that I could and must make a worthy contribution to humanity because I was not the lies that had been taught to me by White society. I was Black, I was proud, and I was human!
“But I have come to see that the fatal flaw of our vision was that the means were not as pure as the ends,” Watani continued. “Throughout my journey — here and in exile — I’ve seen the consequences of violence perpetrated by men of good intentions, for good causes!”
It’s been nearly three months since Watani walked free from prison, and he’s in a great mood. I’m sitting with him and two friends at an In N’ Out Burger in San Leandro, and Watani is in pure bliss. He’s sipping a strawberry milkshake and telling us how perfect In N’ Out shakes are. McDonald’s definitely doesn’t compare, he says; too watery. Now this, this is just right.
Since his release, Watani has dived into fully appreciating small moments. He spends his days catching up with old friends and family and working on his memoir at the San Leandro library.
That isn’t to say that Watani isn’t still paying attention to the world. He maintains that there is still a place for black pride and black cultural identity in a society that maintains somewhat severe racial disparities. “Self-determination is self-respect,” he said. A strong sense of history can help connect young African Americans with something greater than themselves, a sense he feels he was lacking before joining US Organization in 1967. “You made some contribution, you didn’t just pop up in the cotton fields of Mississippi or Alabama,” he added. “Once you know about something you’ve done before, it gives you confidence that you can do it again.”
He’s encouraged by #BlackLivesMatter, which has sustained itself in a way that many previous efforts have not, and is pleased that today’s youth are not complacent in thinking things can’t change — he has personally witnessed how society has improved over his lifetime.
I asked him if he really believes change has taken place in a society where young black men are 21 times as likely to be killed by cops than their white peers and where African Americans are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of whites.
He thought for a moment, contemplating nearly 70 years of history and experience.
“I see progress, but I see a lot of work,” he said finally. “To me, it’s a struggle, and it definitely continues. I think this generation will solve this. And when they do find a way out, vigilance in the struggle for justice must continue. The real challenge for each generation is to never give up, never give out, and never give in.”
Follow Sara on Twitter @SaraGrossman.
Photos by Anya Schultz.