by Patrick Haggerty
My good friend, Brother James Bess, is a political prisoner. Brother James was the minister of the Seattle Chapter of the Nation of Islam for at least 10 years during the 1980s and early 1990s, and was well known and highly respected in Seattle’s Black community. Brother James distinguished himself nationally from other ministers in the Nation by his strident support for feminism and lesbian-gay rights and his call for inter-racial harmony and cooperation for a broad based movement for freedom and equality for all peoples. Brother James was also a strident anti-imperialist and internationalist in his call for a total transformation of global economic and political life.
During his tenure as minister, I worked quite closely with Brother James on numerous projects and activities in Seattle’s Black and lesbian-gay community, including the Coalition Against the Police Precinct, the Coalition Against the Choke Hold, the Occupation of Coleman School and its initial transformation into the African-American Heritage Museum, Act-Up, the lesbian-gay movement against AIDS, and support for AIDS housing in the Seattle area, especially the formation of the Bailey Bouche Housing Project. Brother James was noted in the lesbian-gay community for his memorial service invocations for AIDS activists, especially for the memorial for noted Black gay activist Brian Day, who passed in 1990.
Additionally, I worked very closely with Brother James on two election campaigns during this period, one when I ran for City Council in 1990 with the New Alliance Party and again in 1991 when I ran for state Senate, along with three members of the Nation of Islam, who ran for offices with me on a Black-Gay unity slate. In both campaigns, we garnered from 15 to 18 per cent of the vote, a very significant showing for radical independent candidates.
Even a cursory investigation of Brother James’ history in Seattle’s Black and lesbian-gay community will reveal that he was an activist of stature and determination, and his gifts to the movement in general were substantial and noteworthy.
In the early 1990s, a faction developed within the Nation of Islam with a considerably more nationalist, anti-feminist, anti-gay and conservative viewpoint and began struggling for power against Minister Farrakhan, resulting in an attempted takeover, I believe in 1994, at a national convention. Brother James was a leader of the opposition to the takeover. Divisions became quite sharp, and a nasty struggle ensued within the Nation at the convention, culminating with the leader of the takeover faction taking a bullet in his leg.
The faction lost the fight, Minister Farrakhan retained his seat, and Brother James was charged and convicted of attempted murder. He was swallowed up in the California prison system, where he remains to this day, serving a term of 15 to life. He has now been incarcerated for about 17 years. Brother James immediately became a “hot potato, way too hot to handle,” and was subsequently abandoned by the Black community locally and nationally, by the Nation of Islam, by his family and by the lesbian-gay community. He has been doing his time completely alone for the duration.
Except for support from me, since I did not feel that I was in a position to lose much politically for standing by him and because I felt strongly that he deserved support from somewhere, over the years, I have spent thousands of dollars on Brother James in cash donations, restitution fees and quarterly “care packages” for toothpaste, cookies, sardines etc., and I do not regret one penny. We have exchanged probably a hundred letters during his incarceration, and I have saved all of his correspondence.
Most of it is about his horrendous experiences in prison, his views of the corruption replete within the prison system and about his continuing global political philosophy, which has remained essentially the same. He has been in several California institutions over the years and is currently being housed in Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He is currently 66 years old and in good health physically, mentally and spiritually. He had absolutely no criminal history of any kind before this first conviction and, remarkably, has had absolutely no prison infractions or offenses during his entire incarceration.
The reason I am writing is that Brother James is coming up for parole review in June 2012 and is asking for any support he can get. He needs help with strategy, legal representation, money and perhaps a letter writing campaign and any other suggestions and/or actions which will help put him in a positive light for his upcoming review. Neither he nor I have any legal or prison support contacts in the Bay Area, and we need some. I have promised to come up with $500 dollars for representation, but I’m sure we need more. I am reaching out to anyone in the prison support movement to take a close look at Brother James. If any political prisoner currently incarcerated is deserving of our support, it is Brother James Bess. PLEASE HELP!
Patrick Haggerty, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, wrote this letter to Ed Mead of the Prison Art Project, www.prisonart.org, in Seattle, who can be reached at email@example.com. Ed asked that it be published in the Bay View. If you can help, please contact Ed or Patrick.