Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin

Kevin-Cooper-102313, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Kevin Cooper on Death Row in a photo dated Oct. 23, 2013

An exclusive interview by Dennis J. Bernstein 

I interviewed longtime Death Row prisoner Kevin Cooper in San Quentin on Aug. 18. Cooper is now a double survivor of Death Row and COVID-19. My Flashpoints Radio Team did some of the key research that helped to rescue Cooper in 2004 when he was exactly three hours and 42 minutes from a California state-sponsored murder.

Cooper has been incarcerated for over 37 years – 35 years on Death Row – for the murder of the Ryan family and child guest Christopher Hughes, a brutal crime he doggedly maintains he did not commit. Currently, having exhausted appeals through the courts, Kevin is requesting that Gov. Newsom order an Innocence Investigation to consider all the evidence that points to others and exonerates Kevin Cooper. Gov. Newsom has ordered DNA testing which has almost been completed at this time.

Kevin-Cooper-shackled-after-arrest-1983-by-AP-1400x788, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Kevin Cooper is arrested, shackled and accused of four heinous murders in 1983.

Quoting from a letter from Norman Hile, Kevin’s lawyer, to Gov. Newsom on July 6, 2020:

“The current profound awakening in California and the US as a whole to the systematic racism that affects Black lives every day is a clarion call to examine, under a bright light, the racism that drove the investigation, prosecution and conviction of Kevin Cooper. The murder of George Floyd, and of so many other Black men, by racist law enforcement has brought us to a moment where the State of California can no longer look away. It is time to finally provide Kevin Cooper with a meaningful opportunity to prove his innocence.

“It is undeniable that racism was the driving factor in the SBSD’s [San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department] investigation and framing of Mr. Cooper and in the SBCDA’s prosecution and conviction of him. Racism drove this case from the moment the SBSD became aware of Mr. Cooper and continued unabated until he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.”

Dennis Bernstein: We are joined, from San Quentin Prison Death Row, by Kevin Cooper. Kevin, it is good to talk to you again. It’s been too long. 

Kevin Cooper: Thank you, Dennis. Thank you for welcoming me back. I’m glad to be back. It’s been a long time.

DB: Been a long time, and we are glad that we are still talking. But let’s come in this door. We have seen the invasion of -19. The prisons have been the petri dish. I understand, not only did you have to face off with Death Row, you had to face off with COVID-19. How are you doing? And what’s it like there, in terms of the disease?

KC: Personally, I’m doing well. I do believe I did have COVID-19, but I recovered from it. It’s hell on earth, just like it’s always been. It’s just a double dose of it. We inmates are trying to do the best that we can to survive, as we’ve always done. But like I said, it’s a double dose, now.

DB: Kevin, the Flashpoints show has been on this case for many years. One of our producers, Leslie Kean, former producer here, did a lot of work on the case. We care a great deal about it. You’re in this battle for a long time. 

Kevin-Cooper-at-prelim-hearing-1183-by-Walter-Richard-Weis-Inland-Valley-Daily-Bulletin, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Kevin Cooper listens during his preliminary hearing after he was charged with the murders of the Ryen family in Chino Hills that had occurred in June 1983. – Photo: Walter Richard Weis, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Can I ask you, what keeps you going? After all these years, how come you’re able to continue to struggle for an exoneration? Is that because you’re innocent?

KC: My innocence is what keeps me going. I mean, that is my motivating factor. And that’s all I know. I just keep goin’ and keep goin’ and keep goin’. I can’t stop. If I stop, they win. And I don’t want them to win. So, I keep going.

DB: We know that you’re in a battle now with the governor of California. You are calling for an Innocence Investigation. What is an Innocence Investigation?

KC: Correct.

DB: What does that mean? Tell us about that and what the governor’s position is at this point.

KC: Innocence Investigation is exactly what it says. They investigate the innocence claims that are in my case. I am no longer dead in the court system, because the court system has rubber stamped me through it. And every time I went to the court, they denied me. But yet I have all these constitutional violations. I have no less than six Brady violations, and one is enough to get you a new trial. And I have no less than six. 

And for people who don’t know what a Brady violation is, it’s when the state willingly or unknowingly withholds material, exculpatory evidence, from the defense, evidence that can prove a person’s innocence.

So, they did that, six times. They destroyed evidence, they planted evidence, they lied about witnesses. They did all types of stuff that they have historically done to people like me in situations like this. And so, we’re trying to get all this exposed in a hearing. And if we do that, then I’ll get out. I have no doubt about that. 

Kevin-Cooper-stands-before-San-Diego-judge-at-death-penalty-trial-1985-by-Dave-Siccardi-AP, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Initially a believer in the system, Kevin Cooper thought as he went to trial, “’If I get up on this witness stand and tell the truth, they’re going to believe me, and they’re going to let me go.’ When I got up on the witness stand, and I told the truth, they did not shake my story. They did not change my story. They did not prove that I was lying. And yet, still, the jury found me guilty.” – Photo: Dave Siccardi, AP

So, we’re not in a battle with the governor. We’re waiting for this final DNA testing to get done so that he can decide whether or not to give it to me. And if he does give it to me, we all believe that they’ll get me out, my legal team.

DB: Wow. It’s been a long, hard struggle. Kevin, I want to ask you to step back a little bit and talk about your response to Black Lives Matter. Black lives in the prison, what does that look like? And has that given you any extra support, in your battle for freedom? 

Kevin-Cooper-listens-as-San-Diego-judge-sentences-him-to-death-051585-by-San-Diego-Union-Tribune-AP, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Kevin Cooper listens as a judge in San Diego, sentences him to death on May 15, 1985. – Photo: San Diego Union Tribune, AP

Recording: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

KC: Yes, and because I read, study and understand our history of Black people in America, I understand that every generation has had some type of organization or people to come and fight for our humanity, our human rights, because we can’t have any other type rights, civil rights, or any other type rights, unless we first have human rights. And so, at this point in time in our history, it’s Black Lives Matter. 

But before them, you can see it was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And before them, you can say it was SNCC, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Or you could say it was the Urban League or CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, or the SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that Martin Luther King was a part of. 

Or you could even say it was Malcolm X and the [inaudible] relations that he was after. And before that, Marcus Garvey, and all through that, A. Philip Randolph. So, my point is, you can go all the way back to Frederick Douglass and before him. And we’ve always had people or organizations to fight for us. 

And right now, it’s Black Lives Matter, because Black lives do matter. They haven’t mattered throughout the history of this country, but they matter now. 

And we are making these people accountable, even with this death penalty, which I have experienced and wouldn’t have really experienced if they had executed me, in 2004, when I came within three hours and 42 minutes of being strapped down to that gurney and burned alive from the inside, with those poisonous, lethal injection drugs. 

So, we understand that this criminal justice system, how unjust it is, from the back end, where I’m at, to the front end, where George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and everybody else was at, when they got murdered. 

So, we need Black Lives Matter, not just as an organization that protests on the street. But we need that mentality to come up here in this criminal justice system. We need that mentality to get up there in Washington, D.C., in Congress and in the United States Senate and in the White House, where those people, up in there, understand that Black lives matter.

DB: What’s ‘good trouble’, to you? What does that phrase mean, to you? ‘Making good trouble’?

KC: Doing what I’m doing, what I have been doing, what I have been doin’, since I’ve met you and Leslie Kean, a long time ago. What I – what Mumia Abu Jamal was doing and what every other person is doing, what Angela Davis is doing, and what Black Lives Matter is doing, what – you know, making good trouble. 

Don’t let things stay as, quote, unquote, “normal.” Because when things are normal, when we get murdered, when we get discriminated against, you know? People do all types of foul things to us, when things are normal. 

So, we can’t let things be normal, because we’re tired of suffering under normal circumstances. We have to make good trouble, to make people see that their normal is our pain and suffering. 

John-Coltrane-art-by-Kevin-Cooper, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Over the years on Death Row, Kevin has honed his skills as a remarkable artist. Here is his rendition of John Coltrane.

And we’re tired of suffering and having pain because of them. So, we must “Get up, get into it, and get involved,” using the words of James Brown. We must! That’s what getting in good trouble means to me. 

Good trouble is no longer sitting down and being silenced, because silence is betrayal. It really is! Being complicit is giving the other side the go-ahead to keep on whipping our ass. People are shooting us. People keep their knee on our neck. 

We can no longer – I mean, we really couldn’t do it before, and a lot of us have always fought back. But we really can’t stand it now, because now, we have more people understanding that their plight in this country is right alongside ours. 

That’s why you see so many poor people – poor white people, Latino people, Native American people – involved in this movement right now. That’s what makes it different than any movement before. They can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines.

DB: What do you think about the expanding White Power movement? We have a serial white supremacist in the White House, and he has opened up the door and given the go-ahead for folks to, shall we say, express themselves.” 

I’m wondering what you think about – what’s your reaction to this new White Power movement, where you can – where a vigilante can walk down the street in Kenosha and shoot people, after having a conversation with the sheriff and getting some water and encouragement? Your thoughts on the White Power movement?

KC: Well, I look at it this way, Dennis. There’s always been a White Power movement in America, always. It ain’t never went nowhere. Never! 

The only thing that’s different now, between then and now, is the fact that you have a guy in the White House, and he brought people out from behind the closet door, out of the woods, out of their sheets, and all of that stuff. They’re out in the open, more so now than ever since the 1960s or ‘50s or ‘40s. 

So, I honestly believe that these people, who are sick in the head like that, they’re never going to change. Not the majority of ‘em. So, we just have to keep going and keep fighting and keep building, regardless of what they do. 

See, in my mind, it’s not about what they do. It’s about what we do. We’re not going to stand there and let us – let them just dog us out. We gotta stand up and get in good trouble. But there’s always been and will always be a White Power movement in America, because America was founded on –

Recording: You have 60 seconds remaining.

KC: And this racism that America was founded on has not left, and it will not leave. There have always been Black people or Black organizations who have always stood up and fought for us. 

On the other side of the coin, since the coins are – do have two sides – there’s always been those who have been opposed to us. But we’re not in this country today because of those people, those white supremacists and those white supremacist presidents, like Trump and Woodrow Wilson and Reagan and W. Bush and H.W. Bush and – you know, I can keep going, all the way down the line. Even, to some degree, Clinton. 

Rev.-Jesse-Jackson-opposes-Kevin-Coopers-execution-scheduled-midnight-021003-at-San-Quentin-vigil-020903-by-Ross-Cameron-AP, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks passionately to protesters in hopes of saving the life of Kevin Cooper at the vigil outside the main gate of San Quentin State Prison on the night Cooper’s execution was scheduled for midnight, Feb. 10, 2003. Three hours and 42 minutes before midnight, on Monday, Feb. 9, 2003, his execution was stayed. – Photo: Ross Cameron, AP

No. We’re not here – still here – because of them. We’re still here in spite of them, despite them – you know what I’m saying? – because we keep fighting. 

My mentality, and I’m in a prison where white supremacy is in here, white supremacists, and they – and officers – and I know that, but in that court system that I’m in, there’s white supremacy. But we don’t care what they do to a degree, because it’s not about what they do. It’s about what we do. And that’s how I see white supremacy. It’s there. It’s going to – it’s always been here. It’s always going to be there. 

It’s always going to be here. We just got to keep on fighting. And if we fight long enough and hard enough, eventually we’re going to win. We are! We are! That’s what I believe. Dennis, I say this, in all due respect and all due truth. 

If I had not been fighting all these years in this white supremacist criminal justice system, these people would’ve tortured and murdered me in 2004. The only reason why I’m alive today is because I fought – and a whole bunch of other people fought – against this white supremacist criminal justice system and proved that they were wrong and that they framed me. Now, I’m still stuck here, on this modern-day plantation, in this Death Row section, but it’s not like [laughs] I’m dead. And as long as I’m alive, there’s a chance I can get out. So we keep fighting. 

DB: Kevin, the situation in – in –Death Row there and in the prison at San Quentin has really been a very terrible scourge, and it was caused by the system, the same white supremacist system, wasn’t it?

KC: It’s my understanding that this COVID-19 virus got here in this prison because one prison, who had infected inmates down in Southern California, transported them all the way up here to Northern California and some of them here [to San Quentin]. And the rest took on a life of its own. 

I mean, the coronavirus spread throughout this prison, and a lot of people died. And I think 26 inmates died. Half of them, or a little less than half, were on Death Row, you know? And that happened because these people in this system – now, I can’t say all of them; I’m not going to whitewash all of them like that – but the majority of them, they don’t give a damn about us people. You know? 

Save-Kevin-Cooper-march-protesting-execution-on-St.-Francis-Drake-Blvd-near-San-Quentin-SP-0718-by-Marcio-Jose-Sanchez-AP, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Kevin Cooper has built an enormous following that continually confronts the public and the officials responsible for his fate. This march, on St. Francis Drake Boulevard near San Quentin State prison, was held in July 2018

They don’t. Because if they did, common sense would’ve told them not to do nothing like that. But they don’t use common sense. You know? They don’t use things that you and I would use. They do things that they know is going to mess with people, because that’s what they do. They mess with us. They mess with us mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically –

Recording: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded. 

KC: – and any other type way they can mess with us. That’s what they do, because they’re oppressors. Oppressors don’t give a damn about the people they’re oppressing. And whatever they did, they didn’t do it for those inmates’ best interests. 

They didn’t have their best interests at heart. And so, we’re stuck in the situation that we’re in. I think that things are getting better, but I can’t tell, because I’m stuck in this cage. I don’t know.

DB: What does the medical care system look like inside the prison? Were they up for this? Were they up for this outbreak?

KC: No. They were not. I mean, historically, healthcare in prison systems around this country, and especially in the state of California, have notoriously been bad, the worst in the world in some cases. And in this state, even in this prison, has been under a federal court order. It’s been monitored to get it right, because inmates were dying from preventable deaths, because the healthcare system was bad. 

Now, when this coronavirus broke out, no. Nobody was ready for it, not the inmates, not the officials, not the officers, you know, because some of them, I mean, a lot of them got sick. One of them, I know, died, and he was a good officer. You know? 

But it’s just – it just happened. But those of us who were in here, behind enemy lines, we took the brunt of the pandemic. We were the worst off. We suffered the most. And our families are still suffering, Dennis, because they won’t let us have contact visits. 

this is a money-making machine. This is a business, the business of death, the business of imprisonment, the business of modern-day enslavement, you know?

They won’t even let us have visits through the glass, video visits, or no type visits, you know? We don’t – I haven’t seen anybody since, I believe, January. Not my attorneys, not my family, not my friends, nobody. So, this is not good for us. 

DB: But this is the nature of the system, that that’s how they attempt to keep prisoners powerless, right, to cut them off from the source of love, energy and support. Wouldn’t you say that’s a part of prison treatment? 

KC: Yeah. That’s true. I mean, if it wasn’t for these telephones. And in truth, they took the telephones away from us during this pandemic for a couple weeks, because they said they were afraid that we would get coronavirus from the telephones, even though they were wiping them down with this very powerful disinfectant called Cell Block, which they pass out just to clean these cages. And they use it in the showers, because it’s supposed to kill coronavirus. But nonetheless, they wouldn’t give us the phones. 

So, we found out later that the reason why they wouldn’t give us the phones, because certain inmates were calling the news media and telling them what was going on in here. They were talking to their family members and telling their family members, and their family members were in turn talking to the news media and exposing all this stuff that was happening to us in here.

So, therefore, these people decided to take the phones from us. But we finally got ‘em back, but it’s just the principle of the thing. Yeah, they don’t care about us. They don’t care about our families. They don’t care about nothing, man. These are oppressors. Oppressors don’t care about us, man. They don’t care about our families. 

They all – you know. They just don’t. Just not into – this is a money-making machine. This is a business, the business of death, the business of imprisonment, the business of modern-day enslavement, you know?

That’s what this is. It’s a business. And they can say – what’s the saying? “It ain’t nothing personal. It’s business.” And that’s the mentality that these people have. It’s business! So what, you don’t get to see your family? Don’t worry about it. It’s business! It ain’t nothing personal. 

But in the men’s eyes, it is personal, because without our families, man, a lot of us don’t have nothing. Our families is what keeps us alive and keeps us going, that love that we have, that connection that we have, that commitment that we have, or that responsibility that we have to each other.

Recording: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

KC: That’s one of the strongest things that we have, that keeps us not just alive, as far as on a physical level, but on an emotional level, or on a mental level, on a psychological level.

DB: Kevin Cooper – we’re speaking with Kevin Cooper, at San Quentin Prison. He’s on Death Row. We’re talking about – really, what we’re talking about – the fact that there’s an opportunity now, after all these years of struggling to get the truth out about Kevin’s case. 

He’s got tremendous support from the Innocence Project, from several sections of it. And they’re now moving to have the governor open up the door for an Innocence Investigation. We are delighted and really honored to be speaking with Kevin, on Death Row. It’s been a long road for us, and I want to ask you, Kevin, has your case – do you think your case has helped to call attention to other cases, other innocence cases, and also, on the struggle to abolish the death penalty?

KC: In truth, I cannot answer that question. I don’t know if my case has had that type of impact on the criminal justice system. But I do know that it has had a positive impact on everybody who learns the truth about this case. You know? From the United Nations, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, former judges on the California Supreme Court, certain governors from Texas and Louisiana, and a whole slew of other people have found out about this case. 

And they have stood up and said, “No, man, you can’t do this. We support this guy. We want this man to have an Innocence Investigation,” because the evidence has all been disproven, that they used to convict me. So, it’s just a matter of us getting the opportunity to show our side in an open forum that the criminal justice system denied me for all these years. 

And if they do that, if I get that from Gov. Newsom and, like I said earlier, we believe that I’ll get out of here. Now, if I get out of here, that does not – that does not mean that I will be free. Excuse me. What that means is, I will no longer be on this modern-day plantation, because freedom – true freedom, without equality, there’s no freedom at all. So, I understand, you know, that, if I get out of here, I will be in a status of a second-class citizen or something like that. 

I will continue the work that other “second-class citizens” have done in this country to help make this country better, such as John Lewis, who got in good trouble, such as Malcolm X, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael and Ella Baker, and a whole bunch of other people, who’s too many for me to name in this brief conversation. 

But they were considered second-class citizens, when they took it on them – on themselves to fight back. So, I will be out there on the front line, along with my brothers and sisters that struggle, fighting to bring this crime against humanity to an end. I will be definitely working for all of us and fighting for our human rights, because it’s important for my wellbeing to know that I belong and that I am part of this struggle.

DB: Kevin, it’s like you were given [laughs] – it was an attempt at a, sort of a multiple death sentence. If they don’t kill you in the – in the killing chamber, they’re going to kill you with COVID. But in that regard, we, you know, when we talk about Black Lives Matter – Black and Brown Lives Matter, Indigenous Lives Matter – this goes far beyond the prison, in terms of the racism that really comes up – being brought up by the pandemic and how different people are much more vulnerable than others. 

You want to talk about how racism comes into it, through the economy, through the economics of it? 

KC: I just recently wrote an essay called “Disproportionate Blues,” which was about how African Americans and Native Americans and Latino Americans are disproportionately affected by this coronavirus pandemic. And this is our history, in our country.

This is why Black people invented the Blues, so – because they had to find some way to express themselves about the horrendous conditions, from healthcare, to jobs, to housing or lack thereof, to everything else that we were facing in this country. This is why the Blues was invented. 

Because innocence makes no difference in America. They don’t give a damn about killing innocent people on the front end of this criminal justice system or the back end of this criminal justice system or fixing it all in between.

So, if you fast forward all the way up to date and all that time in between, while things have changed for certain people – for certain people, for those same certain people of a lower class, things have not changed all that much, from redlining to where a person can or cannot live, to the type of schools their children can or cannot go to, to the type of jobs that a person can or cannot get, because of their education. 

These things all play a part in why coronavirus is affecting us. The policies of this country have made it so that healthcare is not a human right. They don’t want to give us healthcare. They want money. Everything’s about money in this capitalistic society. 

And so, if you cannot afford to pay for healthcare, then, therefore, you do without it. And when you do without it, oh, well, you find out what happens when cases like coronavirus come around. So, we all who are poor people in this country are catching hell. So, some Black people are escaping this, because they have money. But the ones that don’t, we’re in trouble. 

And it’s – it’s a historical fact. So, when people say, “Times have changed,” to a degree, they have. But to a larger degree, they have not, because racism – it’s like when they build a building, when they build a courthouse or they build a hospital, it’s like they have racism in the – in the cement, right? So, it’s like institutional racism. It’s all up in there. 

And it affects it so much that it’s killing us. They don’t kill us one way, Dennis, they kill us another way. Or they put us in a position to kill ourselves. And then they say it’s our fault. It’s our fault for having high blood pressure. It’s our fault for being obese. It’s our fault that we live in food deserts. It’s our fault that we have to eat processed food. It’s our fault that we live in rat and roach-infested apartment buildings.

Everything’s our fault! But no, man, it ain’t our fault. It’s the system’s fault. But yet, we pay the price.

DB: You’re listening to Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio. Again, we’re speaking with Kevin Cooper, on Death Row. And Kevin is in a battle towards exoneration. He has the – he’s calling for an Innocence Investigation to be granted by Gov. Newsom of California. We’re keeping a very close eye on that as well. 

Kevin, can I ask you, what – what are some of your favorite books? What are you reading, now?

KC: I just finished reading “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. And before that, I read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” I’m getting ready to read, because I just received “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Davis. And, you know, I do a lot of reading. I read a lot of books, you know. 

So, I’m always reading about this struggle that we are in, this historic struggle that we’re in. And it helps me to better understand my situation, why that I’m in here, and they know I’m innocent, but yet, I’m still in here, going on 40 years. You know? 

Because innocence makes no difference in America. They don’t give a damn about killing innocent people on the front end of this criminal justice system or the back end of this criminal justice system or fixing it all in between.

So, they give us these draconian sentences of 100 years or 200 –

Recording: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

KC: – so, when I read all these books, and I understand this historic struggle that we’re in, it gives me not just knowledge and not just a better understanding, but a will not to succumb to my circumstance. You know? 

It keeps me – these books that I read keep my back straight. Because as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “They can’t ride your back if your back is not bent over.” You know? So, it’s like, reading, to me – and I guess it could be for everybody – reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. So, I love to read, and I’m thankful for all the people who send me books.

DB: Are you – have you always been a reader? Were you a reader, as a kid?

KC: Oh, hell, no. I was stuck on stupid as a kid. I didn’t know the first thing about books when I was a kid. I grew up thinking that white people were the greatest thing on earth. I mean, I was all messed up. I was uneducated and miseducated. I didn’t know too much about nothin’. You know? 

And that’s why I put myself in the position for those devils to get their hands on me, and they did the rest. Because – and that’s another reason why I testified in my own behalf at trial – because I was so naïve, so stupid, so believing in this rotten-ass system. 

Kevin-Cooper-embraces-his-attorney-Norman-Hile-advocate-Kim-Kardashian-West-more-053019, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
On May 30, 2019, Kevin Cooper embraces supporters, including Norman Hile, his attorney (left), and prisoner advocate Kim Kardashian West, who tweeted the next day: “I had an emotional meeting with Kevin Cooper yesterday at San Quentin’s death row. I found him to be thoughtful and honest and I believe he is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.”

I said, “If I get up on this witness stand and tell the truth, they’re going to believe me, and they’re going to let me go.” When I got up on the witness stand, and I told the truth, they did not shake my story. They did not change my story. They did not prove that I was lying. 

And yet, still, the jury found me guilty. Yeah. So, no. When I was a child, man, I – no, I was all messed up. But I’m not messed up no more. And that’s the good thing about it. I’ve learned.

DB: Still learning, right? And how many books are you allowed to have in your – in your cell? Do you have a little library there, or do you – can you keep your favorite books?

KC: Oh, first – all right. First, let me – I mean you no disrespect, all right? I gotta correct you on that – this is not my cell, right? If it’s anybody’s, it’s the taxpayers’ cell. This is a cage that I’m forced to live in against my will. I will never claim this as mine. Nothing in this joint is mine.

But in this cage that I’m in, I’m allowed to have 10 books. So, I’m always sending books out and getting new books sent in. But you know – but it’s good, because the books that I send out, I send to people who share ‘em with other people, especially youngsters, so they can gain knowledge.

DB: Books are crucial, behind bars. That’s for sure. I remember teaching in Rikers Island, and I had a book of poems by Etheridge Knight that I lent to one student in my class at Rikers. And it was a little dog-eared, it was a little ripped up, it came back all beautifully taped together, all nicely re-put together, and I – with a little note saying, “Hey, Teach, this book is too important to let unravel here. So, take better care [laughs] of your books.” 

KC: [laughs] Right. And I even had your book [“Follow the Money”] up in here, you know? And so, I thank you for sending it to me. I forgot to mention that, you know? All the interviews that you did and – over the years, and you even have my interview in there, after I came back from that near-death experience in 2004. So, that – you know, and it’s up in here. So, I thank you for that. 

DB: Well, I – well, I’m happy to hear that. I really am. And of course, it’s really good to speak with you. I want to give you a chance. I’d like to open the mic, and why don’t you – what would you like to talk about? What have I forgotten to ask you? 

I’m going to – we’re going to end by, you know, how people can find out more information about your case. But before that, what – what did I miss? What did we miss?

KC: Dennis, you didn’t miss too much of nothin’, because this is real life, and everything is continuing to grow, continuing to move. And I’m still here. The struggle is most definitely here, and it’s not going to – 

Recording: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

KC: – the struggle, this movement, is not going away, because they’re growing stronger. And so, I’m going to continue to do my part, as everybody in my life, who is in my life, I mean, really in my life is, because if they weren’t, they would no longer be in my life or part of what I do. I think we’re good. I really do. 

Considering the type of circumstance that I’m in, and what we have to go through to make this phone call and all that, yeah. We’re good. We handled our business. And I thank you for allowing me to speak on your program.

DB: Well, it’s an honor. And we all are learning together. And I have to ask you the final question. How can people, if they want, get more background? How can they help? How can they let the governor know that they might want to see Kevin Cooper walk out of those – through those prison gates, into the [laughs]. the larger, I guess we could say, the larger prison that’s now being run by a white supremacist [laughs] in the White House? How can people learn more?

Kevin-Cooper-meme-w-Kristof-quote-0518, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!

KC: [laughs] Well, anybody who is very interested in my case and situation, they can go to and learn about my case and a lot of the people and organizations who have supported me. They can go to my other website,

My Facebook page is currently being redone, but I do have a Facebook page. Actually, that’s freekevincooper. And if anybody really wanted to take that extra step, they could also write the governor and ask him to grant me an Innocence Investigation. 

And for whatever reason that they can find out why I’m on one of these websites with ‘em, because – 

Recording: You have 60 seconds remaining.

KC: – I have the support of the people, then I’m good. And I do have support of a lot of people. But you can never have too much. So, with that said, and I thank you so much. And I wish everybody at KPFA well, and all of you stay safe and virus-free. 

DB: All right. Well, I want you to come back. Maybe next time, we could do this at KPFA, if the – if we don’t have the virus, and we don’t have the virus of that prison. Maybe we can look eye to eye, and – maybe we can look eye to eye, and have the next conversation together. Thank you, Kevin.

KC: You got my word, that’ll happen. Thank you.

Investigative journalist Dennis Bernstein hosts Flashpoints, heard on KPFA 94.1 FM weekdays at 5 p.m. and archived at and He can be reached at

Send our brother some love and light: Kevin Cooper, C-65304, 4-EB-82, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974.

Disproportionate Blues

We African Americans have often been told that times have changed. We are tired of pretending.

by Kevin Cooper

Here in the year of 2020 of the 21st century, we descendants of the people who created and first started singing the blues set to music way back in the 19th century are still singing the blues today. Those people who historically gave us the reasons to write and sing the blues because of our ill treatment and overwhelming oppression could not truly understand, appreciate or relate to our historical or present-day pain and suffering. 

We African Americans have often been told that times have changed. We have been told by the powers that be throughout this country’s history and our existence to stop crying, to get over it, to move on – and for the most part we have tried to do so. We have tried to stop complaining and crying about our collective pains, and that is why the blues was created. It was the only form that Black people could use to express the pain and seemingly never-ending suffering that we were and still are experiencing. 

It was the only form that we could use that would not get us murdered by those in power who wanted us to be content enough to not stand up and speak out against everything negative that was happening to us.

We are tired of pretending that times have changed and hearing how much times have changed because in reality the times have not changed all that much in certain aspects of American life. We know this from the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in front of the eyes of the world. We know this when certain catastrophic events happen that reveal just how times have not changed, events like Hurricane Katrina or other natural and man-made calamities that have exposed the truth about this country’s treatment or lack thereof concerning Black and Brown people. 

People-wait-for-mask-food-distribution-in-Harlem-0420-by-Bebeto-Matthews-AP, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
In Harlem in April, people wait for a distribution of masks and food. – Photo: Bebeto Matthews, AP

This modern-day coronavirus pandemic is just the latest example of how much times have not changed. Just as former President George W. Bush did not care about Black people during Hurricane Katrina, as rap and hip-hop artist Kanye West stated back then, this present-day President Donald J. Trump doesn’t care about Black people either before, during or after this COVID-19 pandemic. The exposure to this pandemic is one more spot on a long list of examples of just how vulnerable Black people are to dying from lack of access to health care, as has been true throughout our history in this country. 

Our tortured history has shown over time that health care or lack thereof has played a pivotal part in our lives and, more important, our deaths, especially in preventable deaths. But America as a whole is not about prevention; it is about reaction. Well, preventable deaths for the rich and powerful is a given, but for the rest of us, especially we Black, Brown and Native Americans, it sometimes seems as though our deaths are welcomed by the healthcare system, which is an arm of the rich. Neither cares about us, and if they can’t make money off of us and our suffering, then to hell with us. 

African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population in this country, yet no matter what state you go to, we are the majority of the people who are dying from this coronavirus, except in certain parts of New York where Latinos are the majority, and on reservations, where Native Americans are the majority. 

It appears that in every positive index in America, Black people are at the bottom of the list, from jobs to home ownership, to wealth, to life expectancy, to health care access, to college or higher education and more. 

Yet we are always at the top of the list when it comes to negative things in this country: mass incarceration, the death penalty, lack of health care, historical racism and injustice, generational poverty, institutional racism, discrimination that is built into all public and some private policies, police brutality, and just about everything else negative in this country. 

When a white person does something illegal, he or she is just one bad person. But when it’s a Black person, he or she is from a problem people, and all problem people should be put away in cages or murdered.

Yet, it is we who are blamed by those in power and their supporters for our own demise and ill treatment. We are blamed for having to eat processed foods and cheap foods, for having to live in food deserts. We are blamed for being overweight, for having diabetes and hypertension. We are blamed for all the underlying health care or medical problems that we as poor and marginalized people have. We are blamed for living in rat- and roach-infested ghettos because of social or economic pressures out of our control. We are blamed for being Black, for all the negative things that happen to us because of the color of our skin. 

This is why we are still singing the blues, as this is our past, present and probably future in the good ol’ US of A. 

The modern-day plantation-prison system in this country is having its own problems with the coronavirus pandemic. This is because, historically speaking, the prisons have been used to warehouse its unwanted and expendable people: Black people. 

Inside these modern-day plantations, real health care is virtually non-existent. There is no social distancing and, depending on what state you’re in, there is no hand sanitizer or anything else. But this is just fine for most Americans because they see Black people as a problem people who should be locked up. 

When a white person does something illegal, he or she is just one bad person. But when it’s a Black person, he or she is from a problem people, and all problem people should be put away in cages or murdered. 

This is all part of the history of Black people in all states, especially in those ex-slave states like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Texas and others that all now have Republican governors, all voted for Trump, and all have disproportionate numbers of Black people who have suffered and died from coronavirus. Those are also the states that did not and do not want their residents to have Obamacare. 

So while in some cases chronic health conditions play a part in why Blacks are disproportionately getting and dying from the coronavirus, the country’s historical treatment and social factors have a large part to play in this disaster. 

Kevin-Cooper-smiling-c.-2011, Kevin Cooper: Surviving Death Row and COVID-19 in San Quentin, Abolition Now!
Kevin Cooper

As was stated recently by Stephen Thomas, professor of health policy and management director of the Maryland Center of Health Equity at the University of Maryland School of Public Health: “The data is clear and has been clear for decades: African Americans, Latinos and other minority groups live sicker and die younger.” He also said: “We cannot close our eyes or put up blinders to the disproportionate impact of this disease on racial and ethnic minority communities.” 

I say, “Nor can we close our ears as to the real reason why Black people continue to sing the blues.” 

Here are some examples of the different types of blues that we sing, although our blues are close to what many others are experiencing at this point in history. Still, in disproportionate numbers are our pain, suffering and deaths.

  • The Depression blues
  • Another Black person was brutally killed by a white cop blues.
  • Police brutality blues. 
  • My loved one died from COVID-19 blues. 
  • I ain’t got no health care blues. 
  • I ain’t got no health care insurance blues. 
  • I can’t get a doctor to treat me blues.  
  • I lost my job blues. 
  • I don’t have a job blues. 
  • I need a job blues. 
  • I’m homeless blues. 
  • I ain’t got no money blues. 
  • My house was foreclosed on in 2008 blues. 
  • I’m still called a nigger blues. 
  • I don’t have any food blues. 
  • I can’t feed my children blues.
  • I’m still in prison blues.
  • I’m innocent on death row blues. 
  • I was stopped while driving in a white neighborhood blues. 
  • I was stopped driving while Black blues. 
  • I was arrested for walking while Black blues. 
  • They think I’m a criminal blues. 
  • I can’t even get welfare blues.
  • I’m followed around the store without getting service blues. 
  • I go to a segregated school blues. 
  • I live in a segregated neighborhood blues. 
  • Mitch McConnell and his Republicans don’t care about Black people blues. 
  • White supremacy is still alive and well in America blues. 
  • I experience racism and discrimination blues. 
  • We have lead in our drinking water blues. 
  • I got life in prison without parole blues. 
  • I got the coronavirus blues. 

I could go on and on about why Black people sing the blues, but my point has been made. That, along with this: According to the APM research lab staff’s May 5, 2020 report, “If Black Americans had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, about 9,000 of the nearly 15,000 Black residents who have died in these states would still be alive.” 

These are states such as Kansas, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and others. I think it’s about time that we stop singing the blues, and start crying the blues because this is a low down dirty shame! 

Kevin Cooper

In 1985, he was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld from the defense. Cooper has become active in writing from prison to assert his innocence, protest racism in the American criminal justice system, and oppose the death penalty. His case was scrutinized in a June 17, 2017, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof and by 48 Hours on March 21, 2020. Visit and for more information. 

This commentary was originally published in Scheerpost in June 2020.