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Commuted Death Row Saints: Hip Hop organizing, struggle and self-determination on death row

Walidah Imarisha
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007
    i raised my blk fist
    as high as i could
    in the small white cage…

Haramia KiNassor, aka Kenneth Foster, Jr. Poet. Author of two chapbooks. Co-founder of the DRIVE Movement. Organizer. Haramia KiNassor, aka Kenneth Foster, Jr. Number 999232. Former resident of Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas. Death Row. Date of Execution set by the state of Texas: Aug. 30, 2007. Current status: Sentence commuted to life in prison by governor 6 hours before execution time.

KiNassor became the second death row commutation since the state’s death penalty was reinstituted in 1982. This is due to the tireless efforts of his support campaign and the tens of thousands of people around the world who made their voices heard, from Caracas to Dubai to Rome, and the overwhelming press coverage (from the New York Times to BET News) of this man convicted to die for driving a car.

    …i got hell in polunsky
    fire aint in the flames
    it’s on gurney beds…

Haramia was convicted under Texas’ Law of Parties, which details when a person is criminally responsible for an act committed by another: if they promote or assist in the commission OR, and this is how Texas caught Haramia: “If, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it, if the offense was committed in furtherance of the unlawful purpose and was one that should have been anticipated as a result of the carrying out of the conspiracy,” [emphasis added].

In plain and simple language, Haramia was put on death row because he should have known what might have happened that night.

The night in question: Aug. 15, 1996. Haramia was 19 years old. He and three friends, riding around San Antonio, decided to commit a series of armed robberies. Haramia’s role in them was as the driver. After holding up two parties, Haramia asked them to end it, and all agreed.

On the way home, they stopped the car so one of the men, Mauricio Brown, could talk to a woman. An argument that ensued between Brown and the woman’s boyfriend ended when Brown shot and killed the boyfriend. Brown, who has already been executed for this crime, admitted to the shooting (claiming it was in self-defense), and freely stated that he acted alone.

In Texas Governor’s Rick Perry’s statement about the decision, he said “I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously and it is an issue I think the Legislature should examine.”

This does not directly speak to the Law of Parties, but Haramia feels it should. A few short hours before the decision came down, he told me in what we thought might be our last visit, “Regardless of what happens today, you all have to keep up the struggle. I know this is bigger than one day. The Law of Parties is still on the books and this is going to continue to ruin lives until we stop it.”

KiNassor’s attorney Keith Hampton estimates there are at least a dozen prisoners on Texas’ death row who was convicted under the Law of Parties. KiNassor is hoping to use his moment in the spotlight to shed light on another case, that of Rudy Medrano who is on death row for the Law of Parties. KiNassor says that Medrano was sentenced to die for loaning someone a gun that was used in a murder without his knowledge when he was at a different location.

    … i was a homemade grenade they wanted to diffuse
    i watched beautiful afroed angels
    refuse me abandonment…

I met Haramia seven years ago when I was the editor of AWOL Magazine and he a contributor. He also served on the Advisory Council for the Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner family group I am part of. He replaced his and my close comrade Hasan Shakur on the council after Hasan was executed by the state of Texas Aug. 31, 2006.

Fast forward to April 23: I had just finished the first day of visiting, the 4 hours flew by and I was riding high on Haramia’s energy heading back to the hotel room to prepare for the next day’s visit. I checked my phone messages; one from Claire Dube, Haramia’s support coordinator. It was simple and devastating: “They denied Kenneth’s appeal. Let him know when you see him tomorrow. Texas will issue a date of execution in the next couple of weeks for him.” And they did.

Haramia already knew when he emerged. His full face and bright smile were dimmed as he said, “I was so happy after the visit, and the minute I got back to the block, I saw the news.” His eyes dropped and he was silent for a minute. But when they rose, he had the same fire that burned across poems, leaked from pens and stained pages.

    …i call on ji Jaga and Dhoruba
    i need blueprints for liberation
    i’d prefer
    August 7, 1970
    August 30, 2007…

Organizing focused on the larger goal, using hip hop, poetry, culture and revolutionary politics that hearken to the era of the Black Panthers—that’s how Haramia gets down.

His struggle, done from a cell the size of a bathroom, doesn’t stop with proving himself innocent, or even challenging the validity of the Orwellian Law of Parties. His eyes don’t see the bars in front of him: he sees the others on, to quote Mumia Abu-Jamal, the “bright shining hell” of death row across the country. He sees the over two million in a “6 by 8 cell, alive in the grave,” word to rapper Immortal Technique. He sees black and brown and poor communities “living under a barbed wire sky,” echoes of Not4Prophet from the Puerto Punx band Ricanstruction. And he knows that as June Jordan said, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It is a global struggle and he knows everything is interwoven.

    … growing roots unrootable
    moving slowly, but surely
    branched out like
    Zapatista caracoles…

This is why Haramia helped found the DRIVE Movement ( DRIVE began as an interracial coalition of men on Texas’ death row who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to show their complete opposition and non-compliance with the death system. With the recent addition of a chapter made up of women death row prisoners in Pennsylvania, DRIVE is spreading like a virus in the Matrix. As one of the most marginalized populations, locked down in the heart of the biggest state killing apparatus in the world, DRIVE members reclaim their self determination and serve as an example that though this system tries to convince us of our powerlessness, we have a long legacy of making something out of nothing.

DRIVE has sponsored and supported hunger strikes, the last of which went from October 2006 to January 2007. Haramia told me how difficult it was to see these men turn into walking skeletons.

DRIVE’s website includes a memorial to the people who refused to “walk”—they rejected participating in the ritual of death: the last meal, the last phone call, the visit with the clergy, the walk to the death chamber, the last words. Haramia said they refuse to be led like cattle to the slaughter; that as human beings, it is an inherent desire to want to continue to live, and that each person who refuses to walk is engaging in an act of civil disobedience.

    … outlaw to the heart
    coz when freedom’s outlawed
    outlaws become free…

Haramia’s rebellious outlaw spirit, like many of his generation, has found a home in hip hop, and he has enlisted it as a soldier in his crusade.

He teamed up with New York-based hip hop band and collective The Welfare Poets, who have worked tirelessly on his case. Last year they released a CD, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, partially inspired by Haramia, that featured songs against the death penalty from a variety of fierce and grounded artists. One of the songs is by Netherlands hip hop artist Jav’lin, who is also Haramia’s wife. “Walk With Me” (and the accompanying video that can be seen on Jav’lin’s website) are a testament to the strength and love of families of the Row.

    … i’m coming straight off death row in
    boots with no laces
    coz it was my wife’s favorite…

We in the movement for Haramia KiNassor, for justice, know that this is a victory. We have won not the war, but a battle. We celebrate, knowing tomorrow we must pick up our armor to fight again. We want him free. But it is not enough to free Haramia—we want an end to the death penalty. We want the prisons demolished. We want the basic necessities of life for every person on this globe: food, shelter, clothing, justice and freedom. It’s the least they can give and the most we’re going to take. Starting with Haramia’s freedom.

    … i keep my fist raised to the roof
    coz poison
    don’t run upstream revolutionary arms
    i’m saved through
    the salute!
    *All poetry is excerpted from Haramia KiNassor’s The Salute.

For more information about organizations listed in this article, see: Haramia’s website at ; Drive Movement at ; Jav’lin’s page and link to “Walk With Me” video at ; Jav’lin’s myspace at ; Haramia’s myspace at ; Welfare Poets Cruel and unusual Punishment CD at ; and the Welfare Poets at .

About the Author
Walidah Imarisha is a poet, a journalist and an organizer. She works with the Human Rights Coalition, a Pennsylvania coalition of prisoners’ families and ex-prisoners dedicated to abolishing the prison system.