Nothing is more precious than freedom,” is quoted as being attributed to Vo Nguyen Giap, a Vietnamese General that led his country through two liberation wars. The first was against French colonialists, the second against the Americans. Despite heavy and painful losses, Vietnam prevailed, defeating the first colonial quest at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and the second at Ho Chí Minh Campaign (1975).
General Giap, the son of a peasant scholar, stood tall in both wars, only bowing down to the resolve of his people. “Any forces that would impose their will on other nations will most certainly face defeat,” he once said. His words will always be true. He died on October 4 at the age of 102.
On the same day, the former black panther Herman Wallace, who had spent 41 years of his life in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary, died from incurable liver cancer at the age of 71. Just a few days before Wallace’s death, Judge Brian Jackson overturned a charge that had robbed Herman of much of his life. According to Jackson, Herman’s 1974 conviction of killing a prison guard was “unconstitutional.”
Despite the lack of material evidence, discredited witnesses, and a sham trial, Wallace, a poet and lover of literature, and two other prisoners known as the Angola Three, were locked up to spend a life of untold hardship for a crime they didn’t commit.
Now that Wallace is dead, two remain. One, Robert King, 70, was freed in 2001, and the other, Albert Woodfox, 66, is still in solitary confinement and “undergoes daily cavity searches,” reported the UK Independent. “When his conviction was overturned, it cleared the slate. He could die a man not convicted of a crime he was innocent of,” King said of Wallace’s release.
One of the last photos of Wallace showed him raising his clinched fist, perpetuating the legendary defiance of a generation of African Americans and civil rights leaders. While some fought for civil rights in the streets, Wallace fought for the rights of prisoners. The four decades of solitary confinement were meant to break him. Instead, they made him stronger. “If death is the realm of freedom, then through death I escape to freedom” (Wallace, quoting Frantz Fanon in the introduction to a poem he wrote from prison in 2012). In “A Defined Voice,” Wallace wrote:
They removed my whisper from general population
To maximum security, I gained a voice
They removed my voice from maximum security
To administrative segregation, My voice gave hope
They removed my voice from administrative segregation
To solitary confinement My voice became vibration for unity.
“Literature can and must elevate a man’s soul,” General Giap once said. The son of the peasant scholar was right, as Wallace’s own words attest: “The louder my voice, the deeper they bury me.”
There was so much in common between Giap and Wallace. Giap fought colonial powers and died free; Wallace, known as the “Muhammad Ali of the Criminal Justice System,” spent most of his life a prisoner, but never lowered his clasped fist, until he died. The words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish can always find space in any discussion concerning freedom:
It is possible
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
And run away…
It is possible for prison walls
For the cell to become a distant land
Can death be that “distant land without frontiers,” where Fanon, Darwish, and Wallace meet and exchange notes on freedom and resistance. Of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 1,200 suffer from various illnesses, and, among them, according to UFree Network, 44 have cancer. Among the nearly 5,000 prisoners, 320 are children. There is little doubt that each of these children sees Nelson Mandela as a hero, but Herman Wallace is also a hero.
“Free all political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoner of consciousness,” Wallace ended his poem. From Palestine to Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Louisiana, his words are loaded with meaning, and relevance.
“When we started out we weren’t thinking about ourselves, we were dealing with the system. That goes on,” said Robert King. And it will go on, because, as Giap had said, there is nothing more precious than freedom. And those who fight against the system, any system, need to understand that without unity no battle can be won, not those of liberation wars, as in Palestine, or those fought from solitary confinement. In an interview with CNN in 2004, Giap, speaking of the U.S. war on Iraq, said that a nation that stands up and knows how to unite will always defeat a foreign invader. “When people have the spirit to reach for independent sovereignty…and show solidarity, it means the people can defeat the enemy.” Like Wallace, Giap, 102, was expectedly frail. Yet, along with Wallace, these voices continue to define history.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is a media consultant, internationally-syndicated columnist, and editor of Palestine Chronicle.com. His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).