On Knowledge and “Stealing”

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Article published in The Funambulist 17 (May-June 2018) Weaponized Infrastructure. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

In 2003 artist Jackie Summell started a correspondence with Herman Wallace, who at the time was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, by asking him “What kind of a house does a man who has lived in a 6’ x 9’ cell for over thirty years dream of?” The Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., besides inmate quarters and among other facilities, includes a prison plantation, Prison View Golf Course, and Angola Airstrip. The nickname Angola comes from the former slave plantation purchased for a prison after the end of the Civil War — and where Herman Wallace became a prisoner in 1971 upon charges of armed robbery. He became politically active in the prison’s chapter of the Black Panther and campaigned for better conditions in Angola, organizing petitions and hunger strikes against segregation, rape, and violence. In 1973, together with Albert Woodfox, he was convicted of murder of a prison guard and both were put in solitary confinement. Together with Robert King, Wallace and Woodfox would become known as the Angola Three, the three prison inmates who served the longest period in solitary confinement — 29, 41, and 43 years respectively. The House that Herman Built, Herman’s virtual and eventually physical dream house in his birth city of New Orleans grew from the correspondence between Jackie and Herman. At one point, Jackie asked Herman to make a list of the books he would have on the book shelf in his dream house, the books which influenced his political awakening. At the time Jackie was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, which supported acquisition of the books and became the foundation of Herman’s physical library on its premises, waiting for his dream home to be built to relocate.

In 2013 the conviction against Herman Wallace was thrown out and he was released from jail. Three days later he passed away. He never saw his dream house built, nor took a book from a shelf in his library in Solitude, which remained accessible to fellows and visitors until 2014. In 2014 Public Library/Memory of the World digitized Herman’s library to place it online thus making it permanently accessible to everyone with an Internet connection. The spirit of Herman Wallace continued to live through the collection shaping him — works by Marxists, revolutionaries, anarchists, abolitionists, and civil rights activists, some of whom were also prisoners during their lifetime. Many books from Herman’s library would not be accessible to those serving time, as access to knowledge for the inmate population in the U.S. is increasingly being regulated. A peak into the list of banned books, which at one point included Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), reveals the incentive of the ban was to prevent access to knowledge that would allow inmates to understand their position in society and the workings of the prison-industrial complex. It is becoming increasingly difficult for inmates to have chance encounters with a book that could change their lives; given access to knowledge they could see their position in life from another perspective; they could have a moment of revelation like the one Cle Sloan had. Sloan, a member of the Los Angeles gang Bloods encountered his neighborhood Athens Park on a 1972 Los Angeles Police Department “Gang Territories” map in Mike Davis’ book City of Quartz (2010). It made him understand gang violence in L.A. was a product of institutional violence, structural racism, and systemic dispersal of community support networks put in place by the Black Panther Party.