i love freedom
butterflies in the sky
and the stomach too.
41 years down
no fistfight in all that time
so who's violent?
Former Black Panther and political prisoner, Sundiata Acoli wrote those two haiku poems in conjunction with a social media campaign launched by The Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign (SAFC), Haikus for Sundiata.
By fayemi shakur *
On May 1st, Sundiata will have an annual review before the New Jersey State Parole Board. Considering how much he loves art and poetry, the SAFC is initiating a day of creative action and love to support his release. On May 2nd, writers, organizers, academics, visionaries, and just plain great people are joining this effort by writing haikus to Sundiata and sharing their words on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) using the hashtag: #Haikus4Sundiata. Haikus are three-line poems with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second and 5 in the third (5/7/5). The poems will focus on messages of love, respect, Sundiata’s history or what make makes him relevant to our history. SAFC will collect and share the poems with him.
Sundiata has served 41 years behind bars and has been denied repeatedly. The charges stem from a tragic incident that occurred on May 2, 1973, when former Panthers Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur and Zayd Shakur were pulled over by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. Assata was wounded and Zayd was killed. During the gun battle a state trooper was shot and killed in the crossfire. Sundiata was tried and convicted in an atmosphere of mass hysteria. He was sentenced to life in prison and Assata fled to Cuba where she lives in exile.
In the past, the board has denied Acoli for reasons that include their belief that he will commit future crimes and concerns that he accepts comments from the public denying his offense and his responsibility in it. This is the argument they have used before and are still using.
Many people are unaware of the positive contributions former Panthers like Sundiata made and continue to contribute to their communities. Their work, which included breakfast programs, voter registration and the creation of healthcare clinics, is hardly ever characterized as human rights work. Sundiata was a brilliant mathematician and computer analyst who worked for NASA before joining the party. Witnessing the challenges he saw in Mississippi in the late 60s, he quit his job and left to help register people to vote. Shortly after, he joined the Party in Harlem where he did community work around issues of schools, housing, jobs, child care, drugs, and police brutality. The infamous Panther 21 case in 1969 successfully criminalized many of the Panthers, hindering their ability to obtain work. More harassment and arrests followed – documented and now public thanks to the Freedom of Information Act which publicized the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that aimed to neutralize activist groups. The mass hysteria and paranoia of that time period was real on all sides.
Decades later, Sundiata is one of many still seeking his freedom. Although the recidivism rate for elderly prisoners is near zero, a stronger push is needed to help him return to his family.
Haikus for Sundiata presents a great opportunity to raise awareness about the existence of political prisoners (defined as people who suffer harsh sentences due to their political beliefs, lifestyles and associations), the need for compassionate release of elderly prisoners, the abuse of authority by parole boards across the country, the larger issues facing many people in prison and the need for prison reform.
Another way to support is to contribute funds towards Sundiata’s legal fees through the SAFC PayPal account. All proceeds will be sent to him.
Contributors to the project include poet, scholar and activist, Walidah Imarisha (who created the idea), poets Jessica care Moore, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Liza Jessie Peterson, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph; Charlotte and Pete O'Neal (former Black Panthers currently in exile in Tanzania); hip hop artists Hasan Salaam, Sticman (from dead prez), Rebel Diaz, Kiwi Illafonte, and Gabriel Teodros.
“I’ve known about this story since I was a young girl. It was part of what made me become an activist. People have misperceptions about those who are in jail in general. It’s a shame for Sundiata not to get paroled,” Jessica care Moore says. “We have people in America today who aren’t going to jail for hate crimes. It’s a no brainer for me to support something that’s about bringing more light and more conversation about our people who are held in American jails because of their political beliefs. I don’t think young people understand that there are people like him in jail, in their own land.”
In the past several months, there have been some glimpses of hope including the release of other political prisoners Lynn Stewart last January, the return of Russell Maroon Shoatz to general population after 22 years in solitary confinement, and the release of Marshall Eddie Conway on March 4.
Could freedom for Sundiata Acoli and the compassionate release of elderly prisoners across the United States be next?
We hope so!
For more info about Sundiata Acoli and #Haikus4Sundiata visit: www.sundiataacoli.org or check out The Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign on Facebook. Submissions can also be sent via email to email@example.com.
Write On! Spread love!
* fayemi shakur is a writer, cultural worker and organizer based in Newark, New Jersey. Her interviews and published work have been featured in The International Review of African American Art, Nueva Luz Photographic Journal, Artvoices, and HYCIDE Magazine.