LUMPENPROLETARIAT—This afternoon (7 APR 2015), Davey D, co-host of Hard Knock Radio (Pacifica Radio: KPFA, Berkeley, CA), spoke with solitary confinement survivor Eddie Zheng, who has recently been pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown (Dem.), after a critical mass of support coalesced for his pardon, even the Chief of Police and the local Board of Supervisors signed unanimous resolutions calling Zheng not be deported after having paid his debt to society in prison. (Listen here, archive available until 21 APR 2015. Interview begins at 7min 33sec, after the KPFA News Headlines.)
Eddie Zheng discussed his experiences of repression by prison administrations. Zheng described how his efforts, along with other fellow Asian-American cohorts, in prison to request educational materials on the history of Asian Americans and Asian culture, ultimately, led to his being held in solitary confinement for eleven months.
Eddie Zheng also discussed his “journey of transformation” in prison, where he served 21 years, mostly in San Quentin, through studying the history of the people’s struggles in the USA, from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States and studying the history of the abolition movement and abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass. “The first history book I really soaked up was the People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn,” said Eddie Zheng. “And the autobiography of Fredrick Douglass. You just have to learn to read and write by any means necessary.”
“And the reason why I say that is because what Frederick Douglass represents is the importance of education.
“You know, when you are able to read and write and think critically, then, you are able to overcome any restrictions that people put on you because it’s all in the mind-set. Right?”
“Yeah, so, that’s the hope that he was able to hold onto. That he will persevere. That he will learn how to read and write, by any means necessary. Then to getting his freedom and the freedom of his people. So, that’s one figure.
“The other figure is Ralph Ellison. When I read Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, it just, on so many levels, it just talks about the oppression that is pushed in this imperialistic system, the capitalist system, you know, when it comes to the oppression of the African Americans.”
“Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is definitely another one of those must-reads because of the fact that he was what people considered a lumpenproletarian, at the time, that he was able to educate himself, while he was incarcerated, learn how to read and write and be able to become one of the founding figures to fight for the freedom of the people.”
DAVEY D: “And you read all these books while inside?”
EDDIE ZHENG: “Yeah. I mean I read all these books. I definitely read many of the history books and many of the classics, like Maya Angelou. You know, I corresponded with the poet who, the sister who was teaching Poetry for the People in UC Berkeley.”
DAVEY D: “June Jordan. The late, June Jordan.”
EDDIE ZHENG: “Yeah. June Jordan, because I started the first poetry slam in San Quentin. And I invited June Jordan to come through to bless us with her presence, but she couldn’t do it because the first time I did it, she was doing a book tour. The second time, she was ill. So, she sent all her students to come into the prison to join our poetry slam.”
“And two other books that really play a big part is George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye.”
DAVEY D: “Was that allowed for you to read?”
EDDIE ZHENG: “Oh, yeah. Yeah. We had that in our library.
“But I’ll share this with you. When we were locked up in solitary confinement, the goon squads, the investigation unit, they took every piece of paperwork, every book that we read. And one of the, just around that time, which is 2002—it’s probably around April, March or April of 2002—they had an article about George Jackson and Jonathan Jackson about Marin County, [the] historical event there.
“And we had an article in our property because we were reading it. We had just got this. And they looked, they took all, they looked at every piece of our paperwork. They looked at every book that we read. And they investigated us all. And they said: Why are you reading this militant book? Why are you reading this type of book?
“So, you know, or the biography of Che Guevara, those books who really exemplifies that revolutionary spirit and the power of the people. So, we/I soaked up all those books. And, then, it was later on that I was able to soak up the books dealing with the connection between Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama because Yuri came and visited me. Because, you know, I was in solitary confinement. When I go to visit, I visit through the death row side, through the glass.
“And, you know, I read about Yuri for a long time. And, then, finally, because the community members who were able to [bring] her to visit me, she just came through. And I just learned from her the history, you know, how she cradled Malcolm X’s head at the Audoban Ballroom [as he lay bleeding on the day of his] assassination. When that happened, I even became more humbled and grateful for Yuri’s presence and what it means by her example in embracing our people and fighting for our political prisoners.”
Eddie Zheng described learning from Yuri Kochiyama and her alliances with Malcolm X about the hope for building bridges between the distinct, but related, struggles of Asians, African-Americans, and other ethnicities. Davey D recalled martial arts master and movie star and producer “Bruce Lee and his relationship with the Panthers”. That same spirit of solidarity carries through in the work of, both, interviewee, Eddie Zheng, and interviewer, Davey D.
Zheng discussed his efforts toward peace and justice whilst in prison:
EDDIE ZHENG: “We realized that there were many people, especially after 9/11 happened, many people were kind of like pointing fingers at the people they don’t understand, like calling people from the Middle East terrorists. And, you know, kind of looking down and stereo-typing people from different countries.
“And, so, myself and a couple of my friends, we realized. How come we were learning about everybody else’s history and nobody’s learning about Asian-American history?
“So, we kind of put that out there to the powers that be, at the time. And, you know, we had a big community gathering, kind of like a town hall-style discussion regarding that. And we signed a proposal, besides advocating for more ethnic studies and Asian-American studies classes, we also advocated for a student body where we can suggest what kind of courses we wanted to learn. Instead, it was dictated to us, what we needed to learn and what they were willing to teach us.
“And, then, we also asked to have a faculty in place where the student body can suggest to the faculty to vote on how we can make sure, on the elective courses, that we can provide more opportunity for alternative literature, especially, learning about other people’s cultures.
“And, it was through that process that there was a lot of heated arguments around that. And the administration got wind of it. And they, basically, put myself and two of my friends—one is Filipino and one is Vietnamese-American—into confinement because our message was that we dared to challenge the administration’s authorities.”
DAVEY D: “Wow. And the challenge was trying to learn.”
EDDIE ZHENG: “Yeah. The challenge was: They told us that knowledge is power. And, then, when we became knowledgeable, and we wanted to introduce this knowledge, all of a sudden, they wanted to shut us down. When we were exercising our power, right, for equal learning, for equal distribution of learning about each other’s culture and the history.
“So, I spent eleven months in solitary confinement because of—”
DAVEY D: “Eleven months?!”
EDDIE ZHENG: “Eleven months. [chuckles] You know, I had correctional officers who are very, very reasonable. They all said that, man, they have people who stop people who sold dope, who have been into solitary confinement and gotten out into the main-land population, yet, because you signed a proposal. You know? And you’re still locked up in solitary confinement. Right?
“But, as a result of that, the community, especially the Asian American community rallied together. And started a grassroots movement to support the three of us who were inside.”
Later in the interview, Davey D asked Eddie Zheng about his experiences inside the solitary confinement cells and how he coped.
DAVEY D: “You know, Eddie, you mentioned that, when you were inside, you spent eleven months in solitary confinement. And, over the years, there’s been a lot of challenges about that practice all around the country. People have talked about the detriment that it is for those who have had to endure. We’ve had people who have been sitting in solitary, some of them, twenty or thirty years. How were you able to survive solitary confinement? Was there a method? And, considering the types of challenges that are going on, around totally eliminating that today in 2015, your thoughts on that fight.”
EDDIE ZHENG: “In regards to the solitary confinement, it is definitely inhumane for anyone who has been confined in a confinement cell with concrete and steel for a lengthy period of time just because of the fact that it isolates any type of human connection the person has. It doesn’t respect the person as a human being. We’ll treat this person as a sub-human, as an animal.
“Because we always use the analogy, when we’re inside, of the dog pound because in the dog pound they treat the dog better than they treat the human beings inside because the space that we’re living in is smaller than a dog pound for individual dogs.
DAVEY D: “Right.”
EDDIE ZHENG: “But [it’s] inhumane treatment by the fact that the deprivation of senses, the human touch, the connection and not only that but also the continuous torture, of psychological torture in a way that they subjected the people who are in solitary confinement is definitely inhumane.
“For me, when I first started in solitary confinement, I was bouncin’ off the walls because there was nothing in the cell. It’s just about—”
DAVEY D: “I mean you can’t even read or nothing?”
EDDIE ZHENG: “Well, at the beginning, you go in there. You have your blanket. You have your sheet. And, then, you have a Bible inside. You’re always gonna have a bible in a cell no matter which cell you go into. And, then, that is it.
“And, then, as you spend your time in there, then, they allow you to get some commisary. They allow you to get some books sent in. Or you can request for some books, uh, when the guards come by to your cell.
“But the challenge is the solitary confinement I was in at San Quentin Prison, pales in comparison to the super max prisons in Pelican Bay, in Tehachapi, and Folsom State Prison, in Corcoran, [inaudible], because those super max prisons, they are designated to isolate people, to break people’s spirits.”
Davey D also asked about crime and punishment.
DAVEY D: “Some people would say: Well, you know, Eddie, when you did what you did, that was traumatizing to people. They have to live with it. Other people did considerably worse. And some folks say you don’t deserve the human treatment, that you don’t deserve the same privilege. How do you respond to that? I mean does the punishment of solitary confinement, does it allow you to quote-unquote learn a lesson? Or does the solitary confinement create another type of being that may be unfeeling?
“My personal opinion is that we’re now seeing a certain type of callousness with many people who have been incarcerated younger and younger. People think that they are going away forever. They don’t stay away forever. They come back in our communities. And, you know, for folks I’ve talked to, there’s a detachment, almost soulless. That’s just how some have communicated to me. But your thoughts on that. Does that punishment make you a better person at the end of the day?”
EDDIE ZHENG: “That punishment, definitely, does not make you a better person. It makes you a more of a sordid and more stone-cold individual, in a sense, because you need to have that type of mentality in order for you to be able to survive inside of the penitentiary, especially in solitary confinement.
“The reaon I was able to survive in solitary confinement is because I had support from the community. They continued to write to me. They continued to encourage me. I was slipping into a depression when months and months were passing by without knowing: Am I ever going to get out of prison?
“But it’s the community, which encouraged me, when I was able to embrace my reality and understood and believe I did the right thing when I wrote the proposal, then I was able to be free mentally. So, I started to help other individuals in solitary confinement to make sure that they rise up.
“So, for the people who have been locked up in solitary confinement for years—and I’ll give you an example. This happened. You just look at the news in the back, in the history. You’ll know that there are people that have been locked up in solitary confinement for years. But because they have a determinate sentence, that whenever they hit that maximum parole date, they have to release them.
“And, as soon as they are released, what do you think they are gonna do? If someone that, for five years, they have had no human contact with an individual beside the guard telling them what to do, how they do it, when they need to be doing it. And, then, they have to survive inside, to build up the mentality just so they don’t go crazy. They you release them, with all this freedom that they haven’t experienced for five years. What do you think they’re gonna do?
“It happened where this one guy who was released from solitary confinement, he immediately committed a crime against, a violent crime, against an individual. Then what happens is the government says: You see what happens? We can’t let these people out because they come out and they hurt our people. But they don’t know that they are the ones who created these people, that created these people who want to harm other people.”
DAVEY D: “Right.”
EDDIE ZHENG: “And, instead of having self-help programmes or other progressive discipline or progressive corrective action plans for the people—because the majority of those people who are in those types of situation, they are traumatized in many ways. So, then, if they don’t heal from that trauma, then how do you expect them to be well? That’s why, in many of the solitary confinement people, they take medication just so they can pass the day. So, they become zombies. They are alive, but their spirit’s dead.”
Zheng also described the further complications he, like many non-citizen inmates face, after they serve their time, when they’re detained by immigration authorities at immigration detention centers, facing deportation charges.
Today, he discussed with Davey D, his activism and his work with the Community Youth Center (CYC), which works on “violence prevention programmes”. Zheng said, Governor Jerry Brown felt that, seeing all of the hard work he has now done as a community activist, he decided to pardon him on Easter Sunday.
Listen to Davey D speak with Eddie Zheng about peace, reconciliation, and healing on free speech radio, archive available until 21 APR 2015. (Interview begins at 7min 33sec, after the KPFA News Headlines.).
[last updated 7 APR 2015 22:22 CDT]
[all transcription by Messina; complete transcript pending]