Robert Seth Hayes is a father, grandfather and artist. He is a black revolutionary freedom fighter who was captured and convicted in New York City in 1973 under a host of charges attributed to his membership in the Black Liberation Army, the BLA. Through his conviction he received 25 years to life. Robert Seth Hayes is one of the hundreds of political prisoners in the US. He remains behind bars and as of July 2002, he is now in his 30th year of incarceration. The following interview was recorded on August 17, 2002.
Q- Prior to your imprisonment, you were a member of the Black Panther Party. What were some of the things you did within this group? A- When I first involved myself in the Black Panther Party in 1969 it was to support them economically though the sale of the Black Panther Party newspaper and to participate in community activities such as teach-ins or speak-ins, which we called at that time Political Education Classes. As my involvement in the Black Panther Party grew, what I mean by that is as I stayed on, I was reporting in, I was showing a consistency of being concerned about activities in the community, and I was given other responsibilities.
Those other responsibilities entailed working for the Black Free Breakfast program. The Free Breakfast program was a support network for the community that the Black Panther Party had devised itself, due to the fact that lunch programs had been discontinued in the schools in the Black, and what we say now are the Third World communities. We felt that children needed a wholesome and healthy meal before attending classes because it was our argument that if a child – who’s only had maybe a cup of coffee and a slice of toast in the morning – while sitting in the class around 10 or 11 o’clock is asked if Mary had three apples and if she gave one to Johnny and two to Sam, how many would she have left, that the child would not really be thinking about how many apples are left, but how nice that apple would taste. And we did not want our children to be stigmatized into appearing as though they were incapable of understanding simple projects, and simple opportunities to solve problems.
We created a Black Panther Party Free Breakfast program initially through contributions from the community, which was the Panther Party’s objective: to unite the community and have the united community act like a village where everyone shared the entire load for the future, the generations, our children. We would feed them early in the morning, we gave them a complete and wholesome and healthy breakfast, intact and with the wisdom and understanding and the support that they were wonderful and that it was their responsibility, and their duty, to become educated citizens of their community and return with those skills to uplift and develop their communities.
So, from newspaper selling to the free breakfast program to acting in capacity in our free medical clinics, where we again petitioned some of the health care providers in our communities to surrender some free time, some pro bono time, to assist people. We would go in, and because I had no medical background so to speak, in the hospitals, in the clinics and in the storefront clinics that we had, my only contribution was janitorial services. So I would go in and I would do a lot of cleaning up and support them in that respect. To give back while they’re giving back.
And we would talk to people, and we would help people to try to develop an understanding of what the process was, what you were waiting for, how long it might take, and how not to become frustrated. We did what we could to help develop a positive and a correct approach to community development. And those skills were the skills that were applicable during the time of the Black Panther Party.
Of course there were other aspects, there were the constant harassments and you know the antagonisms and the attacks by various task forces of the security elements of America. We were under scrutiny and there were a lot of activities that we had to formulate. We had to educate people so that people would be supportive of what was going on in the community; they knew to come out when there were large masses of police operations. When it was safe to do so if someone was to be arrested – to not necessarily interfere, because that would be in violation of the law – but to at least observe. And we believe that by our actions and our activities and our educational processes in the Black Panther Party, circumstances like the Rodney King episode came about, because the people began to pay attention and people began to become involved, whereas before they would’ve thought “No, I can’t get involved.” They were actually involved in determining their own destiny as opposed to being told and effectively pigeon-holed into an existence according to the powers that be.
That in essence I think was my contribution to the Black Panther Party when I came home in 1969.
Q- Could you briefly explain what COINTELPRO is?
A- Well, COINTELPRO is an acronym for Counter Insurgency Program [Counterintelligence Program] and this Counter Insurgency Program was primarily an attack that was put into place to stymie growth and development in the Black community in terms of leadership towards political empowerment. If you were not a member of the accepted protest groups, if you were not a member of say the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], or if you were not a member of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], then you could not be a dissident in America. You had to effectively not protest. It was felt that America had too many skeletons in its closet and it did not wish any scrutiny of its activities past or present. So, in order to protect itself it began to implement programs that were primarily designed so that in the event that something developed, to remove it. And that meant many, many things from the misrepresentation of the legal aspects of say Martin Luther King, to the murdering outright of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. I mean it just covered all the bases.
Q-How is your health?
A- My health, hmm. This is like a two-fold question, I will answer part one now and I will come back to it again at another time. But, primarily I was diagnosed with diabetes in the year 2000 and at the same time I was informed that I also had antibodies for the infection hepatitis C. The diabetes it what we call the adult on-set diabetes. I was in my fifties when it just occurred out of the clear blue sky and I have no history of it in my family, so it was a radical change in my life. Within a week of being diagnosed with diabetes, I was informed that I had hepatitis C. And I asked at that time what was the cure for it, and I was told that there was no cure for hepatitis C. That I had nothing to worry about, that it takes a long time to come in, it has a long time to incubate and this, that and the other.
And so he says, “You probably got it… Did you ever use drugs intravenously?” And I told him no. And he says, “Have you ever had a blood transfusion?” No. And he says, “Well, let’s just face the facts then, probably sometime in the past like when you were in the street or something you was using drugs and it has an incubation period of from anywhere from 15 to 20 years, so you know, that’s probably what it is.” So I looked at him and I said “Well excuse me, at this point in time, I’ve never had drugs in my life. I have no drug history, coming into the facility with drugs, or having drugs, or participation inside the facility since I’ve been here. I’ve been down 27 years, so where did this stuff come from?”
It had to come from in here. It could not have come from outside. So therefore it’s the only conclusion I can draw, because I don’t shoot drugs, and because the hepatitis C infection is transmitted the same way the AIDS virus is transmitted. That is through intravenous, tattooing, or homosexual contact, blood to blood contact, and I had none of these that I could identify with. I could only conclude that I was given hepatitis C from the State. Some unprofessional health care provider, probably inadvertently, while taking blood from somebody, was carrying on dialog with somebody else, and when I showed up to have my blood checked, hit me with the same needle that somebody else had. I’m saying it’s possibly an error. I’m not saying it was intentional. But by that same token, that’s how I came into contact with hepatitis C.
So when they realized that it could not have sat by and incubated for 27 years, the fact that it was in its very early, early stages, that it was only manifesting, that I could not have had this in the street, I had to have had it here. And there was no record of any kind of drug use, or embodiment in the whole time I’d been here so, they were stymied. When I found out I had hepatitis C and I began to solicit, because I had these two infections simultaneously maintaining and manifesting themselves, I developed a lot of side effects that I was attributing to the diabetes and they were false readings for things like neuropathy because I was having symptoms. But it was, I believe today, a combination of both those infections simultaneously. So with the neuropathy I was requesting examination by an [endocrinologist], an expert on nerves. And of course the State refused.
At that point in time, you know, we knew that Nuh was already sick and Nuh had developed cancer and I was suspicious of that, because Nuh had never mentioned that he had cancer, so we were wondering, well what happened to him? Only to find out later on that they were telling Nuh that the reason that he was having all of this pain that he was complaining about was that he had diabetes, and that was what was effecting him, until it was almost too late, when they discovered quite by accident that he had cancer. Now mind you they’re checking his blood once a month and when they’re checking his blood through the lab reports they were doing lab work for almost everything, so they clearly knew earlier on exactly what he had. But they waited until it was irreversible before they even told him that he had it. And at that point they had just closed the book on the epitaph and his obituary was already written.
In the same vein, in regards to my health, they took their absolute time. First they refused to let me see an [endocrinologist], they refused all aspects of me having any kind of liver biopsy, which was necessary to check to see how far the liver had deteriorated due to the hepatitis C. And they made a big hoop-de-doo over it, on the strength that in order for me to have a complete physical examination I had to first agree to take a program, a drug program, and participate in a drug program for six months before I could have this hepatitis C medication or health care examination, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Well, I refused. I refused on the grounds that I have no drugs, I do not deal with drugs and it just didn’t make any sense to me to submerge myself in a drug culture for six months to learn all about drugs, and how to cut the drugs, how to sniff it, to snort it and all the things that it would do to you, when I was already of the mind that I didn’t wish to deal with that. That I live in a reality where people around me everyday in population are getting high, but I don’t have to be around that, I don’t have to dialog, observe, that I can always move somewhere. The fact that I had no drug history indicated to me that there was no need for it, but that it was only a justification to cook the books. If I signed into this program and then later on tried to contest it and argue that they gave this to me, they would say, “I do not know what he’s talking about, as far as we’re concerned he took this drug program so obviously he knew that there was something there, so that’s the end of that.”
To withhold my medical treatment on the strength of some stupid program – I was willing to sacrifice, to say well then, withhold it and we’ll see what the courts say about you withholding medical treatment. That lasted all of about a year, when they decided that with so many people involved in observing they were going to give me the liver biopsy and when they gave it to me, it conformed the original diagnosis that it was early on-set scleroses of the liver, could be treated fairly easily with Interferon, with an 80% chance of recovery. They took that issue and decided well, because I wasn’t going to take this [drug] program, and they couldn’t really go on record saying that’s why he was refusing it, they gave the excuse that the pharmaceutical department had not made enough medicine, at this date in time, and at this date in time I was on the waiting list to receive this Interferon/Ribitron cocktail. That lasted all of about eight months and then they finally came up with it. I now take Pegintron, which is an injection once a week, and I take Ribitron, 900 milligrams in the morning, and 900 milligrams at night, which is an antibiotic. Both of these antibiotics target the liver, to kill the scleroses and to regenerate the liver. When they gave this to me, they handed me a bunch of pamphlets because they were going to avoid the protocol, blood checking, the monitoring, all of the things that they don’t do here for prisoners… we have received no medical attention. And when they laid out the possible side effects for it, it was quite frightening. Including suicidal tendencies, and what they were saying is the part of the possibility of what one would go through, taking this medication. I took a chance and I took it. After six weeks of taking the medication I am thankfully glad to say that I have never had a side effect. I attribute that to the fact that I’ve never been in a drug culture. I’ve never been in an alcoholic culture. I do not drink, I do not get high, I don’t participate in those things. So the medication that I’ve taken has weakened me and shortened my endurance in some respects, but in most ways I’m able to just keep moving. I’m exercising, I monitor what I’m eating.
Again the protocol that they should be following, they’re not. But in the six weeks that I’ve been on it, I have had two blood tests, and I’m waiting for the results of that so that I can send that out, so that can be reviewed by our medical teams outside to see if I’m really in as good as shape as I feel I am. Because there is no protocol here, nobody is even questioning what is happening, and if I say I haven’t had any side effects, you know they are looking at me surprised like, but I see no recording of any of this information, which is important because they’re going to need a record in case something turns around. But it’s, typical, typical, you know, “We’re forced to do this, we’re giving you the meds, and we don’t like it. We would rather not do it, but you have it and that’s the end of that.”
So you really have to on top of your health care. There’s just no help anyplace else.
Q- On July 17, 2002, you came up for parole for the third time, and you were denied yet again. On what grounds were you denied?
A- For the third time, consistently. I was denied parole for 24 months for: Seriousness of the crime; criminal history; and a preponderance for violence.
Let me explain what that means. This was a decision as they wrote it out. What they said was because that I was charged with a host of crimes, including attempted murder, murder, possession of a weapon and blassy, blassy, blassy, as a member of the BLA [Black Liberation Army], 29 years ago, because of that fact, that gave them the right to say that I have a preponderancy for violence. Further, that I have a criminal history. Well, the only problem with that, with both of those is for the 29 years that I have been down I have no new charges, including assault on staff or assault on inmates or assault on anybody else. So how they can conclude a preponderance of violence is beyond my capabilities to understand.
A criminal history as they have defined it, again I have no charges. The only criminal history that I have ever had is this charge that I got busted on 29 years ago. I had never been in prison in my life. So when they talk about a criminal history, what history are they talking about? In light of those two facts, the courts have ruled consistently from 1991 to the year as early as 2001 that you cannot hit on the nature of the crime. That you have to have mitigating circumstances to substantiate that hit because the nature of the crime is never going to change. What you were convicted of, say 50 years ago, 50 years later will be the same thing you were convicted of. It’s never going to change. So, when it came to me, the mitigating circumstances that they would need was an assault, even something as simplistic as dirty urine for taking drugs. Because that would indicate that, you know, I’m not really taking this seriously, I’m committing crime and violating the rules and regulations as I go, and so on, and so on, and so on.
What we are being hit by is was happened to Jalil Anthony Bottom, my co-defendant. They put out strong propaganda, a decision-making-public-opinion -hair-raising-fiery-rhetorical campaign where they stated that “He’s a cop killer, and thirty years is not enough.” What that expresses is public opinion. But these are public officials, in and including the mayor. Mayor Bloomberg of New York City who also wrote the parole board. These are public officials given the authority in the public eye to carry out certain manifestations of the law, theyb should know the law, and the Supreme Court had heard these arguments since 1991. And the Supreme Court, in Supreme Court language has stated emphatically, being a cop killer does not mean de facto you do not get parole. You can not use that. To render public opinion and allow it, or try to enforce it to supercede Supreme Court law is a violation of the law itself. The law has been emphatically clear but the parole boards are attempting to blindside the law by asserting its mandate. Its, how could we say, hidden agenda, which is in violation of the law.
We in our appeals, must bring to the public’s attention that this is taxation without representation. If we are to pay taxes, then we should receive the rights under the law, as is written within the law. And not be denied the law simply because America wishes to hide its political prisoners. By criminalizing us, and claiming that as criminals we are removed from political prisoner status, but by the same token because we are political prisoners we don’t receive the rights of those who are criminally confined, is a complete circle of contradictions. You know that it’s a contradiction upon itself. Either we’re criminals and we’re not political prisoners, or we’re political prisoners and we’re not criminals. But, this is something that even if we’re unable to free ourselves we will have had at least generated an educational process for those who come after us, to have the tools with which to fight the future fight that is to come.
Q- Are you planning to appeal this decision?
A- Absolutely. And I’ve just come across more and more and more new information that gives a whole new slant on things. In the past we were basically attacking the parole division, because there was a belief on our part that they were the initiators of these kinds of stupidities and violations of the law that we were undergoing. When lo and behold we discovered a whole new nest of vipers, and these vipers had been manipulating the law, violating the law, and because they were hidden they weren’t being held accountable for the law that they had been given the responsibility to uphold. Now that they’re out in the open we’re going to target them and the parole board and we’re going to start to make some serious demands. That no taxation without representation. We will think about suggesting civil disobedience or many other factors inside the community, where the community’s decisions and its powers or its empowerment is recognized and that those who uphold the law and authority and are given a mandate by the people will realize that they are subject to the will of the people and not to their class position.
Q- Could you tell us a little bit about the New York Police Department’s Terrorist Task Force?
A- Other than the fact that it was at one time a mere wing of intelligence that was designed to act as a covert military police force. To this day has broadened itself to the point that now they are basically a paramilitary, what we would call a right-wing terrorist force. When you look at the examples of El Salvador or Nicaragua or Colombia, you see these right-wing militias that go around and carry out assassinations and kidnappings and intimidations and every now and then a slap on its back as a responsible entity when they make a major, major bust.
And in brief, that is what the New York State’s Terrorist Task Force is. It was aptly named. It has carried out this covert war of attrition by trying to disrupt any emerging intelligence, consciousness raising, and/or economic or political support that it can muster. And it has many, many heads like the hydra-head, and it uses all of those. What we need to do is we need to photograph it, document it, you know, and expose it. And I believe these things are being checked and challenged on a continuous basis because at this date in time with so much catastrophe around the world there are just no shadows in which to hide. People have to be very outspoken, open with their illegalities.
Such is the case with mayor Bloomberg of New York City. I mentioned that he was a public official, he is holding a high-ranking office. Should he not know law? Shouldn’t he be responsible to know that the office in which he delegates law from, he should be equipped to at least know the law? For this man to write to the parole board and say that on behalf of somebody else, not for myself but on behalf of somebody else, “I wish to you to state that this man should not receive parole because he’s a cop killer,” is in direct violation of the law, the law says you may not do that. As a commissioner you may not hit a person because he’s a cop killer, solely because he’s a cop killer. So what? What’s the difference between if he was a grocery store owner? Does that mean that the man would be acquitted if he killed a grocery store owner or a grandmother, and that would be it? Because if he’s satisfied the initial aspect of the law, then that’s it? He’s entitled to a second chance but if it’s the police, well it’s the police. What roles have they played? And when we accept the 28 murders and deaths of supporters and political prisoners over the years, which no one has ever been brought to trial or convicted of, then, you know, you’re asking a real lot of the public, who pay taxes everyday, to support an elitist regiment of military God knows what.
I mean these people here they glorify in slogans like, “There’s a blue wall when someone commits a heinous crime and nobody tells.” They had a blue wall when Abner Louima was taken into a bathroom and because he was Haitian and they say he’s not really a member of the New York community here, and probably nobody understands what he says, they took a broomstick and broke it up and tool pleasure in shoving it up his rectum. They thought that was hilarious, to humiliate a grown man to the point that he had no human rights as far as they were concerned, that they were dealing with an animal that they could take these liberties with. But when it came out that this very act had occurred, there was what they call the blue wall. And they got away with that. They got away with that because those who kept the wall intact are still out there carrying themselves off, flaunting themselves off, as heroes today.
Q- Earlier in the interview, you mentioned your comrade Albert Nuh Washington, a fellow member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, and also later a political prisoner. Nuh died in April of 2000, while imprisoned in New York State. He had cancer, which was very late in being diagnosed. In one of the last interviews he did before he died, he said something to the effect of “I’ve been saying for years that every prisoner with a life sentence, is on death row.” So what I want to ask you is what you think about this and how it should impact the strategies of outside organizers.
A- I believe Nuh was 110% right and he alluded to something very significant that almost simultaneously I was speaking on.
When Nuh was diagnosed with cancer, I had been diagnosed with this diabetes. I had arrived in the same facility coming out of a SHU, Special Housing Unit, the box, you know, solitary confinement, whatever you want to call it. I arrived at a facility called Comstock, at the same time Nuh had been brought there. I was there when Nuh was in Comstock, when he was in the hospital, we were arranging for us to have a meeting. When at that stage Nuh had already been diagnosed with having cancer. In my research and in my argument I learned that Nuh had been coming down to the visiting rooms for a year and a half or so, constantly complaining about back pains, and they were telling him that it was his diabetes. I know, because I have diabetes, that they have to do a monthly diagnosis of your blood. And when they take blood, it’s sent out to a certified medical laboratory, that runs a host of tests on the blood. From hepatitis C to colon to AIDS to everything. And everything is earmarked. When the body is under attack the defense system in the body begins to make antibodies. And this is how you find out that your have something. So I’m saying emphatically that they knew Nuh had cancer long before it metastacized into a tumor and became detrimental to his life.
When I heard about it I got back on the phone and I said, “Let me tell you something, this is important, it is not by accident that one of us has reached this stage, this far into our years now, that we’re getting sick. And getting sick, all these sicknesses are natural, they’re not by order of their skullduggery, but actually an act of nature. We’re probably catching these diseases—possibly catching these diseases, shall I say—naturally. But what they’re doing is they’re allowing these diseases to manifest and to fester until they’re irreversible. And once it’s irreversible we’re notified, ‘You have this,’ and then you have days, weeks, or months to live.”
By the time that that was halfway out of my mouth, I received notification that Teddy Jah Heath, another comrade of mine, had been transferred into Greenhaven, from a long association in another facility with people that he was educating with, and he sent me a message saying that he didn’t like where he was at in Greenhaven, it had changed very much, and after he had been there for ninety days without a ticket, he was going to try to transfer out. But within three weeks, Jah was dead.
We were told Jah had cancer, that he had cancer of the stomach and he died. Jah himself had been complaining for two years of constipation and stomach pains, and for two years no one would even hint that he had cancer. By the time Jah found out that he had cancer, he lived for two weeks, and then he was dead. My argument is, and remains, that they are killing us. They are killing us by withholding medical treatment for as long as absolutely possible. If they can inject you with something, and in my case I have hepatitis C and I didn’t get it on my own, and they could have given my anything in the course of that, I could have something else that I have not even been told I have yet, that has been festering in my body. But their whole manifestation is, say nothing, do nothing, we will not release them, they will die.
Now, what can the public do? The public must first become conscious. Without consciousness and education, you cannot do anything. You must effectively begin to become empowered. You become empowered though your own education and association, growth and development, and working to be a part of consciousness-raising. There are many, many ideas that I could offer, but they all have to have a foundation from which to be constructed on. That foundation is consciousness. All I can say at this point in time, or would be at liberty to say, is that you must become conscious. You must effectively go out and educate each other. You must effectively say, “We must fight against the draconian laws, the unconscionable laws, the violations of laws, and we must hold those who uphold the laws’ feet to the fire when we give them a mandate in which to exercise the law.” Because it is we who ultimately hold the power. We must not be persuaded or swayed by economics, terror, imprisonment, or the threat of any of those things. We must move forward for the simple responsibility and cause of justice. Nothing else matters. We have to leave a legacy for our children to grow up believing in, and working towards a just and effective society. Any other society is intolerable. We have no desire or need for it.
Q- Finally, I want to ask you what you think people in outside communities should be prioritizing to support political prisoners and prisoners of war.
A- I believe they should begin to sponsor letter-writing campaigns to the congressional people that they voted into office. They should begin to support community watchdog groups that are designed to watch. We have community police commissions whose primary responsibility is to monitor reports of abuses by police, anything else.
People have to realize that we’re not going to get a second, third and fourth chance at this. This is our life today. We must effectively take charge of our lives. We must become conscious. We must become involved. We must gather control of the schools, the economy, the labour, everything in our community. We must effectively begin to talk to each other and express our views and our ideas and dialogue around our differences, because if we do not, we will be caught up with too many things to do, and not enough of us to do them, when it’s too late. And then we’ll be just swept up doing anything and then nothing.
We must begin to organize. And education is the primary goal, and I think that we do need to support political prisoners, but our primary objective should be the education of our children. So we use political prisoners as types in shadows, teachers, examples, but primarily it is the children that we are focusing on, telling them, “Listen, we must rise up from this oppression.”
Only we can free ourselves. Only through our involvement will we become free. We cannot stay on the side and wish and hope and pray for it to come down and become. We will not understand it or appreciate it unless we have been involved in the process of it. We will not understand it or grasp its full significance unless we’re involved in the process. So, I would call on the community to do everything and anything in its power to empower the generations to come. Not the class representative or the elite to come, but the generations to come. We want smart children, we want experienced children, we want leadership in our children, so that the generations that come after them will have a more sturdy foundation with which to build the next generation.
Q- Well, thank you very much, Seth.
A- Well, thank you. I really enjoyed our time, and I hope I’ve said something that will be effective and assisting to several people.
Q- Oh, I’m sure you have.
During this interview, Robert Seth Hayes spoke about Albert Nuh Washington, who died on April 28, 2000 of liver cancer while remaining captive at the Regional Medical Unit at Coxsackie prison. The following is one of the many poems that Nuh wrote:
I have never been bitten by a radioactive spider
So I cannot climb walls
Or defeat a bunch of bad guys at once
But like Spiderman I have a sense of humor
Yet I’d give up some of this humor
To be able just for a few hours
To climb walls and bend bars
So as to leave this place without humor
And laugh at their wonder of
How did he do that?