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From below and to the left

Two poems by former Texas death-row prisoner Kenneth Foster

These two poems by former death-row prisoner Kenneth Foster, Jr., selected by Tempest member Dana Cloud, reflect on the interconnections among the carceral state, national oppression, war, racism, resistance, and revolution.

On August 30, 2007, Texas, the state that executes more people than any in the country, planned to deliver a lethal injection to Kenneth Foster, Jr. for the murder of Michael LaHood, Jr. in 1996. While this may seem like nothing out of the ordinary for a state that performs hundreds of executions annually, Kenneth’s case was unique. He killed no one. Although he was not involved in the shooting, his conviction was made possible by a Texas statute called the Law of Parties, which enables prosecutors to hold those present at the scene of a crime legally responsible if they aided in its execution.

Texas is the only capital punishment state with such a statute, making it the only place in the United States where a person can be factually innocent of murder and still face the death penalty. Following his arrest, Kenneth was forced to go to trial with the admitted shooter Mauriceo Brown. Not only did Brown admit to the shooting in self-defense, but clearly and freely stated that no robbery was planned and that he acted on his own.

Neither Kenneth nor anyone else ever left the car. The prosecution had their own “eyewitness,” who testified that she heard Brown demanding money. Because two robberies had already taken place that night, the prosecutors used the Law of Parties to argue that Kenneth should have anticipated that Brown would attempt to rob LaHood and that a murder might take place. Thus, Kenneth Foster faced execution simply for driving a car.

However, in 2007, a broad, militant, international, coalition-based movement won the commutation of Kenneth Foster’s death sentence to life in prison. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to overturn the death sentence was historic. Not only had the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended clemency only three times in its history, but Rick Perry oversaw more executions than any Governor of the State of Texas, including George Bush. Members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in Austin saw this victory as a real turning point in the history of the death penalty in Texas and across the country. However, Kenneth is still serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit under extremely harsh and dehumanizing circumstances.

During his time on death row, Kenneth became a leader of the death row activist group called DRIVE—or Death Row Intercommunalist Vanguard Engagement. The six members of this group engaged in courageous resistance even under conditions of 23-hour lockdown and were punished with force for refusals to take meals or move when asked, along with other acts of disobedience. Even under conditions of isolation and dehumanization, they developed a political perspective that called the criminal justice system—and its racism, class-bias, and violence—into question.

Now serving his sentence in the Telford Unit near Texarkana, Kenneth will be eligible for parole in 2037. He continues to read and write radical literature.

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Kenneth Foster Jr. sits in a prison visitation booth, looks straight on at the camera and holds his hand up with his palm against the glass that separates visitors from prisoners. Surrounding mirrors show other visitation booths with their separation glass and phones.
Kenneth Foster Jr. shares his writings and experiences with anti-death penalty groups across the country. Photo Credit: Wire of Hope.

From below and to the left

we will return in the whirlwind
like tank wheels,
regenerated limbs
from amputated bodies
caught in the machinery,
our vines sprouting
through left turning zines shouting
visions of justice & empowerment
from red-hot embered throats.
we learned to be
molotov-mouthed militants,
fire-tongued fighters
just unafraid to say any damn thing.
i’m bandana team-
face wrapped Zapatista style
in Darfur Dayrooms,
coz we breathing in genocide
and don’t even know it.
2 (point) and growing!
i’m up early in the morning
praying to souls talking out my walls
trying to get the blueprints for standing tall
and not fall to the demagogues
in the guise of
Justice For All.
there was no impunity
when we protested for butter and sugar,
we only got tear gas shooting.
we responded w/ a DRIVEN mutiny!
the cost of privilege
is a number we can’t reach
peeking from under the fascist boot,
but we still find ways to dance
out the concrete-
convicts constructing inter-communalist infrastructures
based on convictions of substance
from late night Marxist-Leninist studying
when visions of 3 lethal cocktails had us doubling over.
i fall back into
onion skin rolled daydreams
to take away my troubles
we sowing the wind
w/ seditions like
Bob Marley “stand up for your rights;”
all night
pepper gassed body trembling,
no hope in sight,
still holding on like
Sundiata & Jalil.
i’m a wrench in the gears
click-clacking my way
until i fall out the
said to be waste,
but the best fertilizer
for grassroots.
again they rise
in the youth-
the new tornadoes on the roof
w/ questions.
another U.S. is necessary.
and if you claim to not hear my cries carried
from under the bars & steel
read my text messages
emails or faxes,
we will return in the whirlwind
like tank wheels,
coz we came to realize
in revolution
it’s win
or die

A mural painted onto a wall shows a woman attacking a taller and bigger soldier. The woman is wearing Indigenous Mexican clothing with a long ponytail and a flower in her hair. The soldier is wearing a military uniform and helmet, and has a rifle strapped around his soldier. He seems to be defeated by the woman, with his hands floating as he gets pushed down by her. The mural is made up mostly of oranges, yellows, pinks and grays. Several patterns are painted into the mural.
A Zapatista woman confronts a soldier in a mural in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo Credit: Adam Jones.

the spark

ashes, ashes
they all fall down
when the flames of hate
lick up our heels
twirling these
deranged bodies that have
known empty stomachs
one too many times.
from the sands of Tunisia
to the
twisted steel of Texas
we find that oppression has a
sour kiss
venus fly trap lips that
devours our humanity in gulps.
i can’t say i know what
tunnels under Egypt are like
but i’ve smuggled food and supplies
to those considered
enemies of the state
sardine compacted in
Ad Seg cells.
what we don’t know
is the fire that
one self-induces
when despair has
rock a bye baby’d him
into a dream state where this
death by fire-
that was short
but felt an eternity-
was preferable to this
life by oppression
that was long
but felt incomplete.
for the ones that
look down on us-
be us w/ beards & kufis
white uniforms & cuff rings-
their spit is all the same
the boot drags my neck
just as hard
and the disdain
stains the same.
so when asked
“how do you
and keep your sanity?”,
i say…
i don’t know,
but each time a
can spark a revolution
making the flames of hate
lick up his heels
because he just
couldn’t take
being shit on again…
i drop to my knees
and plea
because i know when
ashes, ashes
they all fall down
the next time
it could be

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Kenneth Foster, Jr. View All

Kenneth Foster, Jr. is a 46-year-old prisoner activist who has been surviving in the Texas Penal System for over 25 years. While enduring the worst in the belly of the beast, he dug deep and found his best through political and literary studies.

That education led Kenneth to becoming a self-taught poet and writer. Kenneth earned his way in publications like Socialist Worker, Left Turn, AWOL, and The Harbinger. He has since self-published a collection of poems and short stories about his 10-year stay on Texas' death row called A Voice From The Killing Machine.

Kenneth's writings became his tool, a tool that became his activism and empowerment, working with anti-death penalty group all across America and overseas to defy the stigmas and stereotypes of an inmate. In the face of hopelessness and oppression, he continually reaches for hope and justice. His writings show us that path, and your reading of them gets us a step closer.