A man who no longer wanted masters

His name is Sekou Odinga. He took up arms because he believed that African-Americans are modern slaves and have the right to rebel

The Clinton Correctional Facility, part of the New York state prison system, is near Canada’s border. It was built in the Dannemora village in 1845 to house prisoners who worked in the local mines.

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The white walls, studded with watchtowers, seem to pierce the pleasant landscape of the neighborhood’s simple and well-groomed houses. Still today, it is the city’s main building, flanked by a brick wall hospital that belongs to the same prison complex.

On the inside, tense and dramatic stories. Being a maximum-security prison, it displays a gallery of famous inmates. Legendary mafia members occupied its cells, such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, one of the most important leaders of the organized crime.

Mikhail Frunze/ Opera Mundi

Sekou Odinga: "I don't regret anything, I still believe in the same ideas and in the same dreams"

But it also became the destination of the rebels and revolutionaries who confronted power.

One of them is Nathaniel Burns. Actually, Sekou Odinga, the African name he adopted in 1965, when he was enchanted by Malcom X’s speeches and joined the black Americans’ liberation movement.

The guards - all white - bring him to a private room. The atmosphere is tense. Orders are given aloud. Metal doors bang loudly. The prevention protocol is rigorous and followed thoroughly.

Sekou Odinga, was a 70 year old man when he receives Opera Mundi; he’s a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He was arrested in October 1981, but the organizations to which he belonged no longer exist. The exaggerations about his alleged dangerousness are almost comical: a choreography that seems off beat.

Odinga wears the New York penitentiary moss green uniform and covers his head, as gray as his beard, with an Islamic black crochet cap. He takes slow and careful steps.

In a paused voice, he talks about the path that led him to his dungeon years.

"I joined the black movement when I got out of reform school in 1963, after spending nearly three years in jail for petty theft", he says. "There was an atmosphere of great mobilization in the community; Malcolm X’s words had a huge repercussion on the young."

Origins and militancy

Born in the Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York, Odinga says his father owned a coal shop and his mother was a housewife. Both were lower middle class Christians and followed attentively the civil rights campaign led by Martin Luther King.

The radicalization of the black identity, however, led him away from the Christianity inherited from the white settlers and from the pacifist speech of the main anti segregation leader. He changed his name. He joined the Organization of Afro-American Unity, founded by Malcolm X.

"We were a group of friends who decided to devote ourselves to social work," he recalls. "We wanted to expel drug dealers from the community, build schools and health centers, and achieve improvements to the neighborhood."

In those days, the mid-60s, he was hired by the anti-poverty program implemented by the city of New York. But soon he would feel frustrated with an activity that did not transpose the limits imposed by racism.

It was the magical year of 1968 and Bob Seale, one of the founding leaders of the Black Panthers, was visiting New York. Odinga and some of his friends decided to attend his lectures. Excited, they requested to become a part of the militant organization created in sunny California.

He moved to the Bronx and became an important party organizer. Alongside Lumumba Shakur, the first husband of legendary rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother, he became the head of one of the party’s most representative wings, the Harlem-Bronx.

"We combined community action with political education and preparation to resist police brutality and racism,” he says. "We weren’t a military organization, despite the weapons and the discipline. But we believed it was the black population’s right and duty to react against state violence. "

The Black Panthers quickly attracted thousands of activists across the country and became known worldwide. It didn't take long for the FBI, the federal police of the United States, to launch themselves on a chase against the group of young people who adopted the rebellion as a way of life and threatened the order.

Virtually the entire leadership of the party in New York was arrested during a crackdown in 1969, in a process that would be sealed by the acquittal of the accused, two years after their arrest.

Emory Douglas/book 'Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas'

Cartoonist Emory Douglas, a Black Panther member, used to ilustrate the Party's newspapers

Odinga barely escaped and went into exile. He was soon sent to Algeria to strengthen the international work under the responsibility of Eldridge Cleaver, another historical leader.

He returned to the United States in 1973. With false documents, hiding from state to state, he worked as an African crafts and jewelry sailsman.

The scenario had changed. The movements against the Vietnam War and in favor of the civil rights were dwindling. Many activists were rotting in jail and many others had died. Fear and discouragement were around the corner.

The Black Panthers had crumbled and were divided. Several of the militants, together with those of other organizations, decided to join the Black Liberation Army. The lesson they had learned from the crackdown pushed them to form a more prepared and secret military force.

"I fought with this group until I was arrested", recognizes Odinga. "For eight years, I participated in armed operations that could consolidate the African-Americans liberation movement. People subjected to colonialism have the right to rebel against their masters."

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Detention and trial

His path was interrupted in October of 1981, during the Brink case. A BLA (the acronym for Black Liberation Army) commando, supported by other fighters, stole one of the company’s armored cars and three police officers were killed in a shooting during the assault.

Odinga was not involved in the action. The search for fugitives and accomplices, however, swallowed him to the middle of the storm. One of the fugitives, Mtayari Sundiata, went to him asking for help to escape, but the police had already detected him.

The car they were travelling in through the Queens was surrounded by the police and a backup FBI team. The police, in larger numbers and in better vehicles, caught up to them. Under fire, they tried to escape the shooting. His companion was shot, he recalls, facing down the pavement. Oding survived, but was captured after twelve years.

"During six hours I was brutally tortured, after being identified," he says. "They wanted to know where Assata Shakur and Abdul Majid were."

Assata, born Joanne Deborah Byron, had been the BLA’s leader and was released from prison by her own comrades in 1979, escaping to Cuba. The feds were convinced that Odinga took part in the spectacular escape.

The FBI classified her, in 2005, as a "domestic terrorist". She was listed on the ten most wanted criminals list and two million dollars were offered to anyone who would help locate her. The state of New Jersey, site of the crimes attributed to her, took advantage of the diplomatic resumption between Washington and Havana, and started once again to push for her extradition.

Majid, baptized as Anthony Lacombe, was accused of being directly responsible for the deaths of the police officers during the assault of the Brink armored car. He is serving life sentence since his imprisonment, in 1982.

Mikhail Frunze/Opera Mundi

Clinton Correctional Facility: where, Sekou Odinga was an intern

Odinga’s silence, from when we was beaten up in search for information, cost him three months in the hospital due to damage in his spine. He would soon be tried for state and federal crimes.

The federal court sentenced him to 40 years in prison, 20 for Assata’s escape and the rest for participating in an armed conspiracy, under a law designed to curb organized crime.

The New York court sentenced him to life for attempted murder against the six police officers that were chasing him when he was arrested. But he could be granted parole after 25 years.

The decades behind bars

He spent 28 years in maximum-security federal prisons.

Favored by a benefit available at the time, he fulfilled the sentence after serving two-thirds of his time. His state punishment began when he was transferred to the New York jurisdiction, in 2009.

He became a practicing Muslim.

"Religion gave me calm and concentration to endure a time that doesn’t end," he says. "It's easier to go through the suffering and the losses."

"During six hours I was brutally tortured, when I was identified", says Odinga

The hardest of his sorrows, he says in a choked voice, was the death of one of his nine children, result of five different marriages. Yafeu Akiyele Fula, nicknamed Yaki Kadafi, was a famous rapper who was shot dead in 1996, when he was 30. The identity of the person who shot him was never discovered.

Odinga also remembers a few good times. "The best thing was meeting Dequi, my current wife," he says.

Dequi Kiori Sadiki, 56, was born Lorraine Woods. When she divorced her first husband, mother of two children and more than 30 years old, she attended a community college in Brooklyn, named Medgar Evers, where she was introduced to political activity for the first time.

She joined a group that claimed the story of the Black Panthers and started to visit political prisoners. She also organized support networks and raised money for defense fees.

A  secondary public school teacher, she was charmed by the guerrilla fighter.

"Despite all this time in captivity, he didn´t become brutalized", she says, almost crying. "He's a gentle, humorous, witty man. Above all, he's a survivor. "

The present and a free future

Perhaps survival is Sekou Odinga’s biggest pride, since the bars have not suffocated his beliefs.

"I do not regret anything, I still believe in the same ideas and dreams," he declares. "There can be no justice and democracy in a country where 1% of the people control over 70% of the wealth. We were very young, we made many mistakes, but I would do it all over again, only in a different way. Facing the state outspokenly did not work. "

The interview is over. Sekou Odinga says goodbye and walks back to his cell.

Weeks later, a surprise comes.

A court decision considered his sentence in federal prison part of his state conviction, which made him fit for parole.

The board of evaluation, because of his good behavior and because he had no murders in his files, decided to end a martyrdom that had been dragged along for more than three decades.

Sekou Odinga returned to his family on the 25th of November of 2014. The same day the streets of New York and of another 170 cities filled up with the anger and indignation of those who protested against the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, accused of firing six shots that killed, on August 9th, the black boy Michael Brown.

The old rebel was back to the world he had always known.

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