We continue our Reality Asserts Itself series with TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway, who spent 44 years as a political prisoner and is now in the leadership of TRNN
PAUL JAY: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. This is the fifth anniversary of the release of Eddie Conway from prison after 44 years in jail. In 1970 he was framed for the murder of a cop, and over the 44 years in prison, he never stopped organizing. He organized the union, he organized prisoners for their rights. Eddie was a Panther when he went to jail, and he was a Panther in jail. He organized a big contingent of the Panthers while he was in prison. He spent six of the first seven years in solitary confinement. But he spent that time reading, as his colleagues in the Panther Party in jails smuggled books to him while he was there.
We did a 10-part series, a 10-part Reality Asserts Itself in 2014. And on the fifth anniversary of his release, we’re going to pick up and continue that series. But before we do that, here’s a little taste of the RAI from 2014.
Part 1 was ‘44 Years in Prison, Still a Revolutionary.’
EDDIE CONWAY: When I was in the fourth grade, I attended a school on Mount and Riggs Street, 132 it was named. And we put on a play for Christmas. And we didn’t have an auditorium. We were allowed to go across into the white community to their elementary school to use their auditorium. Huge school. It was impossible—you could’ve set almost our whole school into their auditorium. And I mean, the science lab, outside track, swimming pool. I mean, it was devastating for, like, an eight-year-old. And after that, coming back into the black community and going back to that school, it damaged us so much we acted out that whole year. In fact, I failed the fourth grade as a result of that experience. I think that was my first contact with institutional racism in Baltimore.
PAUL JAY: Part 2 was titled ‘Moments of Radicalization.’
EDDIE CONWAY: I end up as an operating room technician at Johns Hopkins. There was this particular case where this doctor actually performed a mastectomy—that’s the removal of both breasts from a woman. At that time—it was ‘68, now—at that time it was a three-hour operation. He had a golf game to go to in an hour’s time, and he literally butchered that woman on the table while I was in the operating room.
PAUL JAY: A black woman.
EDDIE CONWAY: Black woman in her 50s. And he was—he sawed off her breasts, pretty much. So it was, like, 10 people in the operating room. And what I didn’t understand at the time—I was the only black person in the operating room. I didn’t realize it at the time. But yeah, she got killed. He cut her breasts off, and she bled to death. It was only after the operation—and you know, I knew she had died. He was out in the hallway talking to her daughter and her husband, and he’s telling this woman and her husband that he did all he could to save her life. And I went temporarily insane. He’s got his golf shoes on, and he’s got his golf gloves. And I’m like … you lying motherf—you know. And I just went off, and I end up hitting him, and I knocked him down. And of course, you know, they call security on me, you know, crazy black man loose in the hospital. I have to end up going to the administration. But I’m like, look, I was in there. He killed her. Y’all need to charge him. It’s murder. I’m not letting this go. You’re fixing this. I called the AFRO, I called the—you know, because I knew he should have been in jail.
PAUL JAY: Part 3, ‘COINTELPRO, Attack on the Panthers.’
EDDIE CONWAY: His name was Warren Hart, and he worked for the National Security Agency, and formulated the apparatus that became the Baltimore Panthers.
PAUL JAY: And the idea is the Panther Party will be a magnet to attract militants, and you’ll get to know who are the militants.
EDDIE CONWAY: And get them locked up, and get them arrested. And some of them actually disappeared. One of my friends actually was murdered as a result of this guy. He sent him out on a mission that was unauthorized and illegal. And he got in an entanglement with the police and ended up getting killed. And then I started investigating the captain and determined that he wasn’t who he said he was, because he didn’t even live where he said he was living. He didn’t work where he was supposed to be working. But at that point I realized that I was dealing with somebody that was connected and had some kind of police cover, so I actually reported to California, and they sent an investigation team down from New York. And during the process of investigating, he fled. He fled Maryland, he fled the country.
PAUL JAY: Now, this is, as we all know now, or if anyone follows this, this was part of a national campaign, COINTELPRO, which involved the National Security Agency, the FBI, and many local police forces.
EDDIE CONWAY: Military intelligence, et cetera.
PAUL JAY: All targeting black militancy.
EDDIE CONWAY: Every police force, the state police, the local police, et cetera. And of course, we didn’t discover that until the mid-’70s. I mean, by that time they had destroyed the Black Panther Party.
PAUL JAY: Part 4, ‘The State Targeted the Panthers Because We Were Socialists, Not Because We Were Armed.’
EDDIE CONWAY: The example the Black Panther Party set in its socialist programs was a threat to the structure of capitalism in America, and in the world, in fact. But it was only the Panthers that were working with white groups, and that was working with Mexicans, and that was working with Puerto Ricans, and that was working with the American Indians, and that was working with the Asians. That was the threat. The threat of all of these different people from all of these different communities working together.
PAUL JAY: Part 5 was titled ‘An American Fascism.’
PAUL JAY: Officially, COINTELPRO operated from 1956 to 1971. Unofficially, the program continued under other names, and was most recently codified as the U.S. Patriot Act. So this ain’t over.
EDDIE CONWAY: It’s the habit of the American government to kind of say, OK, we made a mistake. It’s a one-time thing. We violated people’s rights. It won’t happen again. We’ll put everything in check, and then they’ll go back, and a couple years later new laws will come out, and those laws will justify whatever that behavior was. And from then on in, that’s no longer a mistake. And the next time it happens it’s something different; torture, say, for instance, enhanced interrogation. And at some point that becomes, well, OK, that’s legal.
PAUL JAY: Part 6, ‘The Frame Up.’
EDDIE CONWAY: I was arrested a couple days after a shooting in which two Panthers got locked up, a police got killed, and a number of police got shot. And they decided initially to arrest the entire leadership of the Baltimore Panther Party. A police informer had disappeared six months before. They had indictments that they were going to execute against us at some point. They then did it as a result of this incident.
PAUL JAY: One of the police officers that was in on arresting the other two guys claimed that he had chased someone, and after two days, identified you.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, that’s-
PAUL JAY: What was about that—what was the issue of that identification?
EDDIE CONWAY: The issue was—and we ultimately went to the Supreme Court about it—was that apparently they took two stacks of photographs, and no other photo was duplicated in the stacks, and they put my photo in both stacks. And after—and I don’t know, they might have already instructed the guy to select that particular picture. But as he looked through stack one, he couldn’t see anybody he could identify. He looked through stack two, and he sees the same picture duplicated. He identified me. By rights at that time, by me being in custody, I should have been put in a lineup.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, that—why wasn’t there a lineup?
EDDIE CONWAY: Because they wouldn’t have been able to make an identification.
PAUL JAY: Part 7, ‘6 Years In Solitary Confinement.’
EDDIE CONWAY: The conditions were you were locked in the cell, you didn’t have anything—I mean, you were allowed soap, toothpaste, that kind of stuff. You weren’t allowed anything else. You stayed in that cell for 23 ½ hours. You came out for a half an hour one day and got a walk. The next day you came out, you got a shower. And it rotated from shower to walk.
I’m in there pretty much because I refused to be abused. I mean, that’s really the bottom line.
PAUL JAY: Part 8, ‘I Refuse To Be Treated Like an Animal.’
EDDIE CONWAY: A library. I set a library up in the prison. There was like 2,000 people there and no library. And so I got books, and I read and I held political education classes at night for the rest of the guys that wanted to participate. Matter of fact, the whole something like 400-500 guys would just be quiet, and they would allow for, like, political education.
PAUL JAY: You’re actually organizing a local Black Panther organization in the prison.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. And a prisoner’s labor union. We figured that the best way to get prison reform was to get a minimum wage.
PAUL JAY: Part 9 was titled ‘We Dehumanize Those We Want To Exploit.’
EDDIE CONWAY: The look at the prison experience, what we found was that in order for guards to have authority, they have to continue to make efforts to dehumanize every person they see in the population. Obviously the people that are benefiting from that kind of arrangement, whatever you were talking about, slavery, or the multinational corporations to date, their bottom line is profit, and their secondary concern is security. But what they have done is they have used certain segments of the population to incarcerate, imprison, and hold people in captivity. And they use other parts of the population to fill up those prisons, and fill up those cells. At the same time, they continue to make enormous profits, but they’ve created something else: divide and conquer. And so it distracts everybody from what’s really going on. Both groups of people are being exploited, and are being superexploited, but we can’t organize and we can’t get together and look at the common cause of our problem because we’re right there in each other’s face.
PAUL JAY: And Part 10 was titled ‘Why Eddie Conway Joined The Real News.’
EDDIE CONWAY: One of the things that happened in the prison system itself was we got an avalanche of negative news about the community. It’s always somebody being shot, somebody being killed. The news was not only depressing, but it was desensitizing. And eventually I stumbled across—I came down to do an interview with The Real News. And it was kind of like the first time I actually came in contact with the news media that was talking about what the problem really was, in terms of the economics, in terms of the need to organize on the ground, in terms of understanding the history of the environmental movement, and so on. So I volunteered to work and do whatever I could, because I see that as a very positive entity in America.
PAUL JAY: Now joining us again in the studio for Part 11 of our series is Eddie Conway. Five years later. Thanks for joining us, Eddie.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.
PAUL JAY: So, talk about this five year span. In the previous interviews you talked about getting out of prison and kind of being shocked at the state of Baltimore. It looked like a war zone, I think was your language. Five years later, what do you make of your city?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, the city is in trouble, as all urban areas, especially in some poor communities, poor white communities and poor black communities. The process of gentrification is occurring all over the country. Populations are being displaced, sent for the most part into counties, now. And unemployment is rampant. The main industries have either offshored or have automated. And even though 80 percent of the population in Baltimore City is actually employed, some people have to have two and three jobs. Some people that are employed working 40 hours a week are actually on food stamps and other government assistance. That 20 percent that’s been pushed to the side is the 20 percent that’s really suffering, because they’re unemployed, unemployable, almost no assistance, and fighting from day to day just to find a way to eat.
PAUL JAY: Now, you’ve been very active in the community. You’re not just a journalist and producer, and in the leadership at The Real News Network—because I don’t know if people at home know this, but that we have a sort of a three person senior leadership, and Eddie is one of the three. And then we have a management committee. But you’re also very dedicated, very involved in the community of Sandtown Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up. So what is the feeling, first of all, with the people there? And then talk about the work you’ve been doing, because you’ve been building a community center there called the Tubman House. But first of all, talk about the mood of people, and you know, from that height of resistance, what did people learn? Where are they at?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I think it’s safe to say that people are so engaged in day to day survival. And a large portion of that community are returning people from prison, from the prison system. Unemployed. There’s no jobs there. So most of the economy is illegal activity. And that struggle creates a level of violence that’s probably higher and more intense than any other area, any other Zip code in the city. And so before Freddie Gray, that’s how it was. Freddie Gray brought out a level of anger because they could recognize themself in Freddie Gray being beaten and abused like that. That’s one thing. It’s business as usual now. The oppression is the same as it was before. The organizing had dissipated because the anger is kind of gone, like this is what happens to us. This has been happening. We probably—we are mad, but we really don’t know what we can do about it. We had hoped that these indictments would charge, would convict somebody. Everybody walked away. Just what we thought. Or feared.
So the community is pretty much still in the same predicament it was. The stuff that I do down in the community with the Tubman House and the farm project is geared toward trying to change the conditions for young people down there.
PAUL JAY: Explain a bit about the farm project.
EDDIE CONWAY: The farm project is—it was a project of Tubman House in which we decided that if we gave young people an opportunity to get a set of skills, to learn how to use—there’s so much vacant land down there, and just neglected vacant land—how to clean up the land, how to use it, how to grow food, how to sell that food, how to gain a skill. And at the same time trying to help them meet some of the needs in terms of school supplies or whatever we could gather for them, not in the sense of charity, but in the sense of solidarity. We wanted to change the looks that you had on young people’s faces. They were post-traumatic stress syndrome. They see the police raiding all the time. They see bodies dropping all the time. They don’t know when their cousin or uncle or aunt or mother is going to end up in jail or dead.
PAUL JAY: So it’s almost 50 years since you were arrested and went to jail. And conditions—not only are they not better, they’re probably worse than when you went in in 1970. How does this make you feel? Like, you’re still, you know, active in The Real News, you’re active in the community, you’re still fighting, you’re still organizing. You don’t seem to give up in spite of 50 years later it’s worse, not better.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, it’s ten times worse. I make that point all the time. I don’t give up because I understand people—there’s 7 billion people on this planet. You know, there might be tens of millions of people with an invested interest to keep this capitalist system operating on the planet. If we are going to go into the future and create a better world, then everybody that can needs to participate, needs to help, needs to organize.
And so I traveled in those last five years around the world. And I’ve seen people all over the world that’s committed to changing the narrative of what’s happening. And so I have faith, and I actually know that another world is possible. And it’s beyond that. It’s impossible not to stop the change. The change has to happen, because the capitalist system has broken out and kind of exhausted itself. And between automation and cybernation is going to change conditions drastically, and people are not going to be employable under that arrangement. But in addition to that, the planet is actually in peril of not being able to support human life with climate change because of these things that’s happening now that’s actually creating conditions in which my grandchildren might not be able to live on this planet.
So young people don’t have a choice. They’ve got to step up, and they are stepping up. And they’ve got to make a difference, because their backs are against the wall.
PAUL JAY: Well, please join us for the continuation of our series of Reality Asserts Itself with Eddie Conway. We’re going to talk about the continued levels of violence in Baltimore, why, and what can be done about it. So please join us for Reality Asserts itself on The Real News Network.