The Road from Standing Rock to Gaza is a Straight Line

Originally published in Counterpunch

SEPTEMBER 19, 2016
The Road from Standing Rock to Gaza is a Straight Line
by STANLEY L. COHEN

I’m not a North American Indian although I was adopted by clan mothers of the Longhouse Bear Clan from Akwesasne during the Summer of 1990 armed standoff between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and Quebec where I served as legal counsel to the Mohawks. It began “simple” enough over a provincial plan to expand a golf course in Oka (Khanesatake) by taking over a traditional cemetery and destroying a sacred Pine forest in the heart of the Mohawk territory. After months of a standoff, mostly with Native women and children guarding a sacred ceremonial fire against bulldozers, a gun battle erupted between the Quebec Police (Surete du Quebec) and the Warrior Society, largely from Akwesasne… the Mohawk territory that straddles the borders of New York and Canada.

When the smoke cleared, an SQ officer was dead and the Canadian Army called out to surround a hundred or so of us who continued to stand ground. While days turned into weeks and then months of negotiations, “First Nations” across Canada answered the call to support our efforts by blocking highways, seizing municipal buildings and occupying bridges across the country; at least one, the Mercier, connecting the Mohawk Territory at Khanawake with Montreal, was wired with explosives. Soon the resistance spread to Indian communities throughout the US with threats of reprisals if we were attacked. It was a time when Indian communities across the continent stood as one and said in one clear voice “enough; enough to broken treaties, enough to stolen resources, enough to the destruction of our communities”.

This piece does not seek to glorify armed struggle, even by indigenous communities with little left to lose. Nor is it about Oka or the half dozen other major confrontations that have, over the past 50 years, exploded between colonial powers and an outnumbered, but determined, Indian people. Confrontations at Wounded Knee, the BIA Headquarters in D.C., Alcatraz… and now with the Standing Rock Sioux over the so-called Dakota Access Pipeline… are not the problem. These are merely sign-posts of a fundamental disconnect between Indian Nations that struggle to survive as sovereign people with unique cultures, tradition and beliefs and a largely European people and governments who daily attack their fundamental right to self-determination…rewriting Indian history along the way.

I’ve spent most of my adult life among Indian people. As a young man, while a Vista volunteer, I lived with the Winnebago, Omaha and Santee Sioux Indian nations not far from Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge, South Dakota just months after the FBI siege on the American Indian Movement there ended. I worked with Theo Means, the mother of AIM founder Russell Means, who taught me much about patience, determination and sacrifice… traits that Indian people have necessarily had to master in order to survive in their own homelands. I also spent a lot of time with the Native American Church and was honored to participate in its ceremonies and celebrations.

For a decade I was counsel to the Rotisken’rakéhte, often referred to as the Mohawk Warrior Society; Longhouse men who answer to the clan mothers and, in keeping with a tradition going back millennium, are responsible for national defense and public security in Mohawk Territories.

I’ve handled hundreds maybe thousands of cases over the many years I’ve represented Iroquois and other Indians in state, provincial and federal courts in the United States and as a consultant in Canada. While many were in the nature of classic criminal defense, often were there occasions when our work, both domestically and abroad, was purely political in nature ranging from the right of Indians to travel internationally on a Haudenosaunee passport, to unfettered cross border trade, to the right to begin each school day, in a public school comprised largely by Mohawk students, by reciting the “Thanksgiving Address” … an age old Iroquois blessing. And, on occasion, there were tense, sometimes deadly, standoffs with law enforcement and even within factions in the Confederacy itself when it came to the defense of Iroquois sovereignty and tradition.

I’ve taken much more than I’ve given; learning far more than I’ve taught over the many years of my life and work in Indian communities. I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what indigenous sovereignty means, indeed, what it demands… and I am not talking about foreign laws or statutes. It’s not about the little things like whether Indians need hunting or fishing licenses in their own territory or are exempt from paying tolls at international border crossings, or getting a “pass” from the collateral consequences of free trade agreements that impact adversely upon their local communities… all with no controlling input from their traditional Tribal Councils and chiefs. While the significance of such issues should not be diminished, the paramount issue is rank tokenism… a perverse game where we call Indians sovereign yet reduce self determination to little more than daily ministerial tasks that, at day’s end, must still comport with the whim of foreign law… the arena where, justly, Indian tradition and priorities should control. And while pow wows and tobacco burning ceremonies have played an important age-old role in the rite of passage within Indian communities, today, to non-Indians, they are seen as little more than entertainment to the delight of tourists who for one brief moment get a glimpse of what was, but do not understand what still is.

The ultimate question is who gets to decide what is to become with, in and on, Indian land and communities. And while the confrontation at Standing Rock has galvanized Indians and non-native supporters from across the continent, its but a symptom of a much deeper crises facing several million Indians holding on to endangered traditions and cultures that predate our arrival by several thousand years.

Standing Rock is not “just” about the impact, one way or another, of a so-called development project upon Native land . It’s about the arrogance and greed of power and the trappings of illusion. We call Indian people sovereign; indeed the Constitution refers to Tribes as sovereign nations… but it’s all a grand, perverse lie. We romanticize Indians as so much a part of our glorious history and yet deny them their fundamental right to determine their own present and future. We hold public sessions and ask them for their input on decisions which influence their land, communities and people but then do whatever suits the political and economic whim of the moment. It’s called concurrent jurisdiction.

Indians need nothing from the US government but to honor age old treaties and to be left alone to determine their own priorities and develop their own communities based upon age old traditions and beliefs… whether they comport with our view of their world or not. Every day in Indian communities across this continent, Tribes are free to make decisions about their unique needs, practices and communities until it rubs up against those of the outside world. At that point concurrent federal jurisdiction kicks in and controls what does or does not happen in what’s supposed to be sovereign land.

Of course, whenever controversy in Indian country attracts public interest and builds drama, courts and politicians are quick to act to curry favor, to earn points, to “balance” equities and to protect the interests of “our” Native people… who always seem to lose on any core issue that would require us to defer to their self determination and decisions.

Long after Standing Rock fades into our collective memory Indian Nations will struggle to survive, to chart their own course against impossible odds, forced to fight every day on big and small issues alike. Not a day goes by where Tribes are not told by outside government agencies what they can and cannot do about their communities and Tribal practices and jurisdiction. Battles like air and water access, development projects and resource rights captivate the outside world. But there are endless and immediate issues that even the politically astute and concerned among us just don’t get about real sovereignty or what it is to be a sovereign people in the midst of a colonial power.

Bernie Sanders spoke the other day at Standing Rock to the roar of thousands. A wonderful orator, he no doubt went on and on about Native rights and corporate greed. He always does.

That night, Sanders likely returned to relax on the deck of his new 600 thousand dollar cabin that sits on the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont… built on land that sits in the middle of the Eastern Abenaki Nation land claims. Some things just don’t change.

Boycotts, Now and Then: an Open Letter on BDS to the City Council of New York

Boycotts, Now and Then: an Open Letter on BDS to the City Council of New York
by STANLEY L. COHEN

First published in Counterpunch  SEPTEMBER 15, 2016

Like the religion of my youth and the country of my birth, I just don’t know the City of my life any more. Several days ago in what can only be described as a one sided political prisoner exchange, a quid pro quo of suffering, the craven New York City Council held a session to “debate” a proposed resolution on how best to convert constitutionally protected BDS speech and activity into per se anti-Semitism… a perverse leap of faith similar to the sinister shroud of supremacy worn by the Reichstag supporters of the 30’s at a time when today’s Palestinians, were yesteryear’s Jews.

In announcing that the peaceful and pure political speech of BDS was not constitutionally protected and now most unwelcome in New York City, the resolution’s sponsor inadvertently became the movements best salesman by correctly describing it as an international effort “to boycott, divest from and sanction the people of Israel (including) its academic, cultural, and civil society institutions.”

Yes, Councilman Cohen (no relation), BDS is precisely about delegitimizing Israel, a pariah state that has flaunted international law since its very inception by embracing apartheid, occupation and ethnic cleansing as so much an essential and proud way of life for millions of illegal immigrants and so-called settlers. And yes, Mr. Cohen, right again, by design, BDS does indeed go well beyond simply “protesting… government policies” by targeting “…all facets of Israeli society.” That’s the aim. To send a loud unmistakable message to the people of Israel that silence is complicity and that to remain complicit is to invite the collective political, economic and social discomfort that should, indeed, must come with blind support of a government that targets and tortures millions of Palestinians for no reason other than their heritage, religion and historical right to a nation whose theft began in 1948 and continues on day by day by day.

Although I was not present, witnesses describe an angry hate filled session; a public meeting filled with spit and Islamaphobic taunts coming from the largely vetted Zionist audience egged on, all the while, by their pet councilmen and women. To the pro Israeli, anti First Amendment bloc, the mere mention of any support of BDS triggered the all too familiar and convenient chorus of “anti-Semite”… even the half dozen or so rabbis who attended to voice their support for BDS and opposition to the Council’s attempt to stifle dissent were not spared J’accuse. It mattered not that the air was heavy with principle and calls for justice and a powerful example of protected participatory government at its best- it was anti-Semitic. It always is… whenever people dare to challenge Israel or its official narrative packaged and sold like none other.

Not long after it began, police moved in to clear the public session of its BDS supporters, those daring enough to display pro Palestinian placards or flags; those foolish enough to believe that a City Council meeting was about dialogue and debate and not just a politically staged event to provide “participatory” cover for a decision long ago rubberstamped through a well placed political contribution or bargained for exchange.

My city is one that relishes debate… the good, the bad, the ugly, the true and the false. We thrive on disagreement and diversity. It’s what makes us great… different than everywhere else in this country, if not the world. It’s not a city of racial or religious orthodoxy. It’s not a city that welcomes purity of any sort, let alone that of thought or speech. Yet today’s jejune City Council has started us down that precise slippery slope deigning to become censors of what it is that we are free to say and feel, what it is we can and cannot do in ensuring that our peaceful voice is heard.

To say that I am embarrassed for most of these 51 lost souls who oversee and represent 51 different districts within our five boroughs and which, interestingly enough, has a Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus comprised of twenty-five of the fifty-one members… but one away from the majority… is to describe New York as simply a City with a lot of people.

In New York, the City Council (which oversees the fourth-largest governmental budget in the United States, just behind that of the federal government, California and New York State) is supposed to provide the checks and balances of our local government. By design it wears many hats, not least of which is to represent the heart and soul of its millions of constituents; New Yorkers who see themselves as very much a part of a vibrant and opinionated political, artistic and social community both local and international. Just hop in a cab and listen to a driver rave on at his radio while he follows a breaking news story some seven thousand miles away that has nothing to do with his shift, or his life, but has him engaged as if it were unfolding right then and there before him

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the most recent private sale of a public trust, today’s City Council is not one which understands let alone respects its own history… an electoral journey often fueled by fierce independence and determined integrity in the pursuit of justice within, not just the narrow confines of our five boroughs, but our world as a whole. Was it so long ago that an earlier City Council unanimously passed anti-apartheid legislation kick-starting a national movement intended to, and which ultimately did, break the back of apartheid South Africa. Like today’s BDS effort, the 1985 City Council bill was supported by a broad coalition of unions, activists and academics. Like today’s BDS effort, it targeted all facets of South African society including not just its academic, cultural, and civil society institutions, but individual South African citizens as well, in its challenge to long-term institutional segregation that had resisted most forms of international criticism until the disinvestment campaign came along. Sound familiar?

Indeed, in proposing the legislation, Upper West Sider Ruth Messinger explained, “We’re going to cut off all loan monies for South Africa from New York Banks. The city has finally begun to realize the extraordinary leverage it has with its funds. It’s only a beginning.”

A year earlier, then Mayor Koch created a panel to measure possible responses New York City could take to pressure the South African government… and the panel recommended withdrawing municipal employee pension funds from companies doing business there. While others city and state governments undertook similar measures, the $665 million pension investment withheld by New York was by far the largest American fund to disinvest as political/economic pressure directed at a regime no more repressive than that of Israel since the occupation of Palestine began nearly 70 years ago.

On other occasions the City Council has moved to make its voice heard on matters far from the East River that rubbed up against well-settled international norms and laws. Thus, in 1997, the City Council, with the support of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, passed a measure that called for New York City to withdraw deposits and investments from banks that did business with some 16 countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Egypt, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan and Vietnam for alleged religious persecution of minorities. The bill would make more than one-third of the world’s business population off-limits to the city, and cause tremendous economic and social hardship to more than a half a billion citizens of the world because of the conduct of their respective governments. In supporting the bill City Councilman Thomas Dunne, a Manhattan Democrat, called it a moral issue for the city.

“Just like in South Africa and in Northern Ireland, New York City can stand as a leader in the battle for human rights around the world,” Dunne said. “As an international city, New York has a responsibility that’s far beyond the borders of our five boroughs.”

Historically, the City Council has often moved to ensure the widest possible reach of human rights be it for its own citizens, those in other states or abroad. Often its resolutions have been groundbreaking and not at all popular for the times. Thus, on February 16, 1951, at the height of Jim Crowe, the New York City Council passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against African Americans in city-assisted housing projects. The bill was directed mainly at the Stuyvesant Town housing project. One month later, the Brown-Issacs Bill became law in New York City, making racial discrimination in public housing developments a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine and prison term for the owner of any housing development constructed with public assistance found to discriminate on account of race, color, or nationality. Stuyvesant Town, long a symbol of discrimination, was barred from using race as criterion in tenant selection.

Years later, the City Council was to pass Human Rights Law Title 8 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. Under its current form the NYCHRL protects New Yorkers against actual or perceived discrimination based on sixteen categories. Categories include race, color, creed, ages, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, partnership status, any lawful source of income, status as a victim of domestic violence, status as a victim of sex offenses, stalking or lawful occupation.

From this code and our collective commitment to diversity and justice, New York City has seen a wide range of powerful political protests and statements in support of the right of individuals to chart their own course in pursuit of personal rights and beliefs that do not interfere with those of others who call this City home. So, too, Title 8 has been quick to serve as the legislative impetus to challenge abhorrent practices, even private ones, which would reduce the rights of our citizenry on the basis of their minority status, whatever they might be.

For example, in its most recent application, Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council called for a city-wide boycott of Chick-fil-A, a private business owned by a devoutly Christian family whose owner had announced that he believed marriage is just between a man and a woman and that any other union offended core standards of decency. In supporting the boycott, Councilman Dromm, who founded the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee and organized the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade and Festival, noted that the restaurant supports groups that impart “…a strong anti-LGBT message by forcing their employees and volunteers to adhere to a policy that prohibits same-sex love… it is outrageous that Chick-fil-A is quietly spreading its message of hate by funding these type organizations.”

Last year Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that because the council is “committed to celebrating and respecting the diversity” of the city it would not have an official presence at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade because of rules that prevent gay and lesbian groups from identifying themselves while marching.

In 2015 the City Council honored Ethel Rosenberg on what would have been her 100th birthday for “demonstrating great bravery” in leading a 1935 strike against the National New York Packing and Supply Co., where she worked as a clerk. At the height of Cold War hysteria Ms. Rosenberg was executed for treason having been convicted with her husband for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

In 2007 a group of primarily African American New York City Council members called for a resolution to “express profound regret” for the city’s role in chattel slavery. The New York City Council members who introduced the resolution wanted the city to apologize for its role in sustaining and benefiting from the slave trade where 12 million Africans were physically coerced into a life of bondage in the Americas. This comes in light of various attempts made by lawmakers to absolve the country of its associations with slavery.

And in 1994 in an outpouring of love led by City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi and Mayor Giuliani, IRA leader Gerry Adams, once imprisoned and denounced by the British as a Northern Irish terrorist, received multiple awards and praise from city officials. Describing Adams as a “civil rights activist,” Giuliani specifically cited the “North’s suffering under an outside occupation force.” Where have we heard this phrase before?

In New York, City Council boycotts have not been limited to human rights abuses abroad but have targeted a wide range of domestic activity, often defying popular political sensibilities and the voting allure of the day. Thus, in 1978 the City Council supported a nation-wide citizen’s boycott directed at the Southern based textile giant J.P. Stevens for labor law violations. In proving the apple can in fact fall very far from the tree, then Governor-elect Mario Cuomo declared “…to shun the products of J.P. Stevens as you would shun the fruit of an unholy tree.”

In 2011, a different Council passed a resolution calling for a boycott of the state of Arizona and all of its businesses and tourism including U.S. Airways (based in Tempe), the Diamondbacks ballclub and the Grand Canyon in reaction to a law that allowed police officers the right to ask residents to provide immigration documentation. In noting that the Council had “…concerns about how the boycott can hurt working-class people,” Councilman Ydanis Rodriquez of Washington Heights nevertheless compared it to the 1980s anti-apartheid boycotts against South Africa, concluding “…we believe that…it is necessary.”

We are a city of dissidents, of creative free spirits and thinkers, of independent women and men who do not suffer fools lightly. New Yorkers have made it a calling standing up to the petty popular, and the passing fancy. We have survived draft and race riots and an unprecedented attack of terror in lower Manhattan which took the lives of thousands. We’ve given comfort to runaway slaves and refuge to those in flight from injustice at home and abroad alike. We’ve embraced, indeed welcomed, thoughts very much taboo elsewhere. We are a City with streets and boulevards that honor fallen free thinkers and movements; those who scoffed at tyranny and, by doing so, often paid for their acts of defiance and courage with their all.

To drive through the five boroughs we call home is a passageway of dramatic history and sacrifice. Where but New York do you find the names Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, King, Robeson, Tubman, Juan Pablo Duarte, Mother Hale, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Gleason, El Grito de Lares and Toussaint Louverture intersecting corners named for the Young Lords, Buffalo Soldiers and Abolitionist Place.

Given our clear and long history of commitment to the unpopular voice, and the difficult battle, what is there that drove this most recent effort by some in the City Council to sully the name and tradition of its predecessor councils? It’s far too easy and “nuanced” to blame the corrupting political influence of AIPAC or the blind obedience to Israel shown almost uniformly by our City’s Jewish politicians. No, it’s more basic and tawdry than that. This resolution was very much government at its worst; business as usual, a quid pro quo, an exchange of votes with one caucus currying favor with another driven not by principle, but mere patronage.

Indeed, in supporting the resolution, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s said all the right things its Zionist sponsors wanted to hear. Calling BDS a “…harmful, exclusionary campaign aimed at undermining the unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States,” the speaker delivered on a promise she had made to the Jewish caucus last year. The reality of it is, she could care less about either the BDS movement or Israel. Informed sources at City Hall report that this was a simple, bargained for, exchange with Viverito delivering the power of her position and her caucus in exchange for Jewish council members supporting her earlier resolution that President Obama commute the sentence of legendary Puerto Rican Independista, Oscar Lopez Rivera now unjustly serving his 35th year of imprisonment of a 55 year sentence following his conviction for seditious conspiracy as a leader of the FALN.

The irony of the Speakers cheap political ploy is that Rivera himself would, like Mandela, reject any deal that required of him that he sacrifice his principles and his support of others engaged in armed struggle, let alone peaceful protest, to obtain his own liberty. Like Mandela who when offered his freedom after 17 years of imprisonment if only he renounced violence but instead walked back to his cell to do 10 more, Rivera years ago refused to accept President Clinton’s commutation offer which would have required of him to renounce the use of “terrorism” to obtain independence for the Caribbean commonwealth.

So Madame Speaker, the next time you pass the Statue of Liberty remember it sits as a beacon of hope, equality and justice in the East River of New York, the capital of the free and fierce world, and not the Jordan River which runs red with the blood of Palestinian civilians trapped by the bondage of apartheid and occupation. BDS.

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It Ain’t The Promised Land… Part Five

Part 5

Bunk 11. Born into the heart of the deep south in 1947 while segregation still controlled the destiny of millions of her black citizens, to talk to Freddie is to travel down well-worn, distant roads paved over, but not repaired. For him, the journey from Southern cradle to Northern prison has not been solitary. The stain of racism is his ever-present companion.

The youngest of four children born to a farm couple in rural Williamsburg, South Carolina where his family tree traces back to slavery well before the Civil War, he remembers, like yesterday, segregated black schools, churches and water fountains. Raised on a steady diet of his grandmother’s tales of slavery, she often warned him not to cross the imaginary line that separated their property from the “white man’s.” The few white kids he knew were the ones he played with out back behind the large plantation house where his mother cooked meals, washed floors, and did laundry to make ends meet. The tobacco, cotton, and corn crops they grew only went so far in those tough and, at times, dangerous back roads.

Even now, sixty-plus years later, Freddie cannot forget news of local lynchings or the night when, but eight years old, he was awakened by his mother’s screams as the local Klan threatened to burn down their home unless his dad paid protection. He did.

From the day the hooded men on horseback attacked his home until he went up North, some eight years later, to live with his older brother, Freddie was not the same. The Klan had turned an adventurous childhood into one of sullen moments, fear, and withdrawal. Begging his parents to return with his visiting brother to New York and not quite yet sixteen, he quit school, never to return, and left with three dollars his dad had given him and two from his mom.

Within a year of his arrival in upstate New York, Freddie found himself homeless. Tired of his brother’s binge drinking and abuse and no longer willing to surrender his meager paycheck to him, he moved out. Still but a teenager, Freddie began a decades-long journey into one addiction after another… at first with heroin and ultimately crack. For the next 35 years, his life revolved around drugs and little else. Never a major dealer, he bought, he sold, he used… he bought, he sold, he used. The pattern repeated itself over and over again as his journey, which began as a terrified eight-year-old in the hate-filled South led to stops in Harlem, back to South Carolina and, ultimately, prison.

The Harlem of the late 70’s and early 80’s belonged to Frank Lucas, Nicky Barnes, and heroin. On every street corner, you soon learned that the drug was king and that all night meant just that…all night. To Freddie, who had fled from years of dope and despair in Rochester and in search of getting “straight,” Harlem held out hope. Soon, however, he found the lure of its streets and after-hour clubs too much to resist. For the next eight years, he was trapped in a vicious, endless cycle of dope, parties, and more dope on the streets of Lennox Avenue. Free at last from the overt racism of the South, the challenge was simple… to sell enough dope to get high and to avoid the violence and police corruption of the time uptown in New York City.

As his thirties gave way to his forties and the street drug of choice changed, Freddie, like thousands of other Harlemites, discovered crack. Too much to resist and desperate to escape the full-time rush that was crack, he returned to where it had all begun many years before in Williamsburg, South Carolina. The return to the family homestead was to prove so much fool’s gold.

Returning some 35 years after he had left the Deep South, to Freddie, it seemed little more than a blink of an eye. Although the Klan sheets had given way to the board rooms of new nearby corporate headquarters, little else had changed. Blacks still lived and played with black, whites with whites, and to travel down rural roads of Williamsburg County late at night was to tempt fate.

For Freddie, the transition from uptown Harlem and user to family farm hand proved to be a daunting task. Soon, he relapsed.

Over the next decade, until his arrest in 2001 for possession and distribution of crack, Freddie successfully transplanted his Northern lifestyle to his birthplace. Once again, he found himself smoking crack, partying, and smoking crack as he ran the drug from the coast of Florida to South Carolina to support his habit and to make ends meet.

Although he had but 100 grams of crack and a few ounces of cocaine powder at his disposal at the time of his arrest, federal prosecutors threatened to enhance the overall drug weight in his case if he went to trial. Facing a life sentence if convicted on the basis of so-called “ghost drugs,” Freddie pleaded guilty to a minimum 20-year sentence. Like enhanced mandatory minimums, ghost drugs…those not actually possessed but merely contemplated… have become the drug hammers that have filled federal prisons from coast to coast.

In the year between his arrest and sentence, Freddie was jailed in Effenhorn Detention Center. During this time, he quickly learned that, in South Carolina, federal prosecutions were race-driven… with most prisoners black and guards, prosecutors and federal judges white. Frequent were the times that this now fifty-something black man was called “boy.” No less frequent were the cases he came across where like-accused white defendants received sentences far less than his. Some things don’t change.

Following sentencing, Freddie was sent to the low-security prison at Petersburg, Virginia. Within days of his arrival, there was an incident involving a young black man assigned to a cell with a Klan member imprisoned for burning down black churches. Ignoring his repeated requests for a transfer, eventually the young man was attacked and severely injured by his Klan cell-mate. Later, Freddie learned that race-based incidents with black prisoners targeted by other prisoners and guards were commonplace at Petersburg. After 9/11, such attacks grew… with Muslims increasingly targeted. Freddie recalls shouts of “towel-head” and “nigger” as they echoed throughout the prison.

Towards the end of his first year at Petersburg, Freddie began to feel some discomfort in his stomach. Gradual at first, it gave way to periods of excruciating pain coupled with bouts of disorientation and chronic lethargy. Eventually, the pain became constant, causing him to often double over, to the alarm of fellow prisoners and some guards. Though he knew something was seriously wrong, over the next year or so, he received no sophisticated tests. Like many other prisoners throughout the BOP who report significant medical ailments, he was told repeatedly that it would pass. When it didn’t, inconclusive routine blood work was ordered.

Fortunately for Freddie, one day while at sick call, unable to walk or stand straight, a concerned physician’s assistant took the extra step of sending his blood work to Southern Regional Hospital… a private facility located not far from the prison. It saved his life.

With his voice cracking, years later, Freddie recalls the news he received the very next day. It was advanced stage IV cancer with not much chance of survival. Almost miraculously, he proved them wrong. He lived.

Admitted to the same hospital, Freddie soon underwent a four-hour operation to remove a large cancerous mass that had grown throughout his stomach. He awakened to the news that, although most of the mass had been removed, the prognosis was not good and that an extensive chemotherapy regimen remained as an almost last-ditch effort to save his life. Just ten days after his surgery, Freddie was returned to the prison… his body filled with tubes and racked with pain. He remembers lying for days on his bunk with little medical follow-up… unable to eat or properly care for himself.

Almost six months to the day of his surgery, and without notice, Freddie was transferred to the BOP medical facility at Butner, North Carolina for his chemotherapy… an intensive eight-month regimen which left him often violently ill and, on occasion, praying for the final relief that comes from death.

A determined man of strong faith, he had the sense that somehow he would survive… that there was a plan of sorts for him. Today, Freddie remembers the fright he felt with the insertion of a “port” … or surgically-placed reservoir attached to a tube in his chest cavity through which the chemicals were introduced into his system.

Following each five-hour treatment, he had to wait 28 days, all the while again racked with pain, nausea, and uncertainty… hoping that his blood cells would return to normal so that the next round of chemotherapy could begin. At one point, the port had to be removed because of an infection that would not go away. The treatment stopped, only to begin all over again, anew.

For eight months, the process repeated itself. At various times, Freddie was unable to eat and lost thirty-five pounds. He remained constipated throughout; unable to move his bowels, he developed a painful hernia which remains to this day.

Freddie recalls lying in his prison bed fighting infection, waves of nausea, and slipping in and out of consciousness… searching the ward for familiar faces which changed day by day as prisoners died, mostly from delayed treatment. Often he would hear them screaming out, reliving earlier times and places as they took their last breath and passed away. He estimates that during the year he stayed at the Butner hospital, a hundred or more prisoners died, mostly from cancer and because, like him, valuable treatment time had been lost to medical indifference in BOP facilities throughout the country.

Not far from Butner is a small but growing graveyard with the bodies of those prisoners who died without families or too poor to purchase the remains of their loved ones. It costs $1,000 per body. Although unseen by most, it is said that the headstones abound not with the names of the dead, but their prison numbers.

Eight years after surviving cancer and now in the fourteenth year of his 20-year sentence, Freddie, now 68 years old, is a frail man who tires easily. Never fully restored to his former health, there are moments when he just “does not feel right.” Of late, his CEA, or early cancer warning scores, have begun to once again elevate… a sign that worries Freddie but is ignored by the medical staff at Canaan.

Freddie can be seen early each morning mopping the floors in the bunkhouse. Each night, he prepares a “homemade” meal with goods purchased from the commissary. Creative and tasty, Freddie’s recipes are popular especially with the young prisoners at Canaan. He also likes to share stories with them as he provides counsel in moments when they are scared or depressed.

Although Freddie has seen two recent sentence reductions for drug offenders, he has not benefited from either. His mandatory minimum sentence renders him ineligible for any reductions.

While the BOP provides for “compassionate” and “second chance” releases, because he looked death in the face and survived, he is not eligible for either. Late at night, Freddie sits on his bunk wondering whether he will live long enough to walk out of prison and return to the South of his youth. Only time will tell.