Kenneth sent me this essay (including 2 poems at the bottom of the essay) and I’m happy to share this with the world. We must get the word out and share this cause. This essay is about his time at death row and the resistance to this institutionalized killing. His death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 2007, but Kenneth remains an activist and advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty. Kenneth is an amazing writer and regardless what your point of view is about the death penalty, this essay won’t leave you unaffected.
The Time is Now
By: Kenneth E. Foster Jr.
The anticipation had grown. There was a sense of tension, despair and anger in the air. The word was – it’d be a fight to the end! As I stood in the death row recreation day room watching the dreaded death watch cell officers began to take some of the inmates in the day room back to their cell. We all knew what was approaching and because the situation was escalating my request to stay in the day room remained unobjected.
I stood close to the caged window watching the correctional officers approach the deathwatch cell. I could hear them talking through a broke out window – “Jennings, are you coming out?” Their reaction of walking away answered that. As they left, I peered into the cell trying to focus my sights through the covered cell. The cell had been enclosed by a piece of metal grill. This was installed as a protection for officers preventing a desperate or purposeful act of violence from the prisoner awaiting his trip to Huntsville for execution.
As I got my sights I saw the young warrior. He was wrapped from head to toe in cloth-protection for the upcoming war. All jokes aside he looked like an Arabian in the desert or even a ninja. Within a few minutes a team of about 8 officers filed in suited in riot gear. As they lined up next to the death watch cell the ranking officer pulled in front of the cell and asked once again, “Jennings, are you coming out?”
With the continued stance of resistance the war began. A long stream of pepper gas was sprayed into the cell. This gas is atrocious and creates extensive burning of the eyes, infringes in on breathing, irritates the skin and induces coughing and gagging and has even caused death.
As I stood watching this my blood began to boil and my heart raced with fury; fury of being helpless and knowing… this could be me! The young warrior began to pop a blanket he had in his hands trying to push the gas back out the cell, but the metal grill only acted as a shield incubating the gas in the cell. As the brother remained resistant to these men attempting to take him to a state sanctioned murder another long stream of this vicious gas was released into the cell. The popping of the blanket continued.
As I looked back to the few others that were in the day room with me I could only shake my head and say,” this is messed up!” In the process of looking towards the other persons in the day room something caught my eyes that held my attention in a very awing way. I saw nothing but pure hopelessness in their eyes, it was very disturbing and what was even more disturbing was… they were just sitting there. Internally this enraged me because I thought to myself this is a man on death row, whether we know him personally or not (which I didn’t) we can’t sit here and act like this is nothing. At the exact moment I turned around to face that window and I yelled, “ FIGHT SOULJA! FIGHT THESE PIGS!”
The hopelessness I saw in these people’s eyes turned into vigilance in my voice and as I witnessed this man standing alone in his excruciating fight I refused to let him stand alone, I refused to allow him to see a fellow brother on death row, in the same boat as him, sit there as if nothing was happening. By then the gas began to seep through a couple of broken windows and I began to cough from it. I couldn’t help but to say out loud, “damn this stuff is strong.” I could only imagine what the man in the cell was going through. Again, the officers let a spray into the cell and this time Jennings
began to gag and choke very loudly. I continued my yelling, “STAND STRONG SOULJA! STAND STRONG!”
The ranking officer told his squad, “Get ready!” He then yelled to the picked control officer, “Get ready to roll the door!” Then, at the end of a count down he yelled out, ”Roll it, Roll it,” and like a set of bloodhounds out the gate the riot team stormed the small cell and the fight began. You could hear the tussling and Jennings
(quite an in shape young man) was putting up a most powerful fight.
My whole body exploded into a combination of cusses and threats to the officers as I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “FIGHT SOULJA! THAT’S YOUR LIFE IN THERE!” I repeated this several times. The ranking officers observing this struggle could no longer ignore me and looked back to take note of who this raging prisoner was.
It was a vicious struggle and it took a few minutes to subdue and cuff Jennings.
My insides were hurt as I watched them bring him out. I can only say that as my pride and anger would not let a tear release, my insides were flooding with them. I couldn’t think of any words worthy to be given to this man I only let out, “ God’s going to bless you soulja. God’s going to bless you.” Out of pure vindictiveness one of the officers looked over to me and gave me the “cut-throat” sign running his thumb across his neck. It was a reminder to me of this war, a sign that there is no mercy where we are concerned.
Yes, I did know it was through and that Jennings was at the end, but the war has just begun.
This day I speak of was November 16th 1999. The man was Desmond “Des” Jennings; a young black male that went down the wrong path that lead him to death row. While I didn’t know Des, many brothers I knew did and respected him and gave him much credit for the self- educated plight he endured.
The awaking to his roots as an African man had given him the knowledge and strength to stand in his time of peril. It gave him the knowledge to not fear death, to love his life and to take his right to live into his own hands by fighting for it. And while this is not a time for me to politic with those who preach an eye for an eye this society is wrong and a full-blown hypocrite for killing its citizens when it propagates do not kill.
Desmond Jennings not only made history that day in the struggle from death row as being one of the very few in death rows existence to physically fight to the end, but he made a statement to society and to those of us that claim to be strugglers and conscious men. As we sit here in the midst of death row striving for betterment in life and seek outside help for our cases, how, when and if the time approaches, can we not stand up and fight for our lives?
This statement has nothing to do with race, color or creed, but with the common bond that ties all of you here into the same boat. We’re all condemned to be murdered by the state of Texas. This in itself makes none of us (white/black, innocent/guilty) better than the next. As African men though we look to our ancestors’ history as freedom fighters and tribal warriors and the call for us to remain as such is embedded in our souls, period!
It has become my belief that any man physically capable should fight to the end. I say this for several reasons. For those of us that stress the death penalty is wrong, we must uphold that belief through every ounce of our being; mentally, spiritually and physically. We do so mentally through our writings, spiritually through our self-education and growth and must do so physically.
I’ve known many young men that professed to be fervent strugglers walk to their execution. What type of statement does this make? It says hey, this is OK. This is fine to be happening. Some of these persons have accepted last meals! What type of statement does this make? It says – I now eat from my enemies’ hand. The same system that kept me confined and mentally tortured awaiting murder now wants to give me a feast. How sadistic is that?
We have allowed a sense of acceptance of this inhumane process to go on. We have allowed a visual of acceptance that our lives are not worth anything. We’re to blame for this. As I have discussed my stance not only with fellow comrades, but my family as well, I have declared that I will fight to the end. I have also declared that others should do the same.
We have to realize that a statement MUST be made to society that this is NOT OK and we do not accept it. If I reach out for help from compassionate and human members of society I feel it’s the ultimate sacrifice for me to show I meant my life was worth something. I will not dignify my captors, oppressors and murderers by eating food from them; a meal that at no other time would they offer me. Their bon voyage banquet will NOT be accepted here. We must get this society’s attention.
The day after Desmond’s fight a Sgt. that was present spotted me in the day room and called me to him. He told me if I ever did that again I’d find myself in solitary (it would be written as “creating a disturbance”). He said he was not “threatening” me, but was just telling me. I told him “I knew that yesterday;” and walked off. His point was – don’t ever speak up for yourself or another inmate; in fact your actions may ignite others. MY point is – at that point 11/16/99, I decided to fight with my comrades the best way I could and would do the same for myself and the cause. I will follow in the path (if my time comes) of vigilant brothers like Shaka Sankofa, Ponchai “Kamau” Wilkerson and Emmerson “Young Lion” Rudd.
I will not accept the victim’s role. For me to submit myself to a victim’s role is to submit and subdue my rage and my rage is the fuel I use in the fight for justice and equality. I will not submit my rage for a consent of murder on me.
Following this writing piece you will find 2 unique poems that capture my intense feelings towards this matter. One is written in an eccentric fashion full of historical and conscious symbolism and the other is a bit simpler. Two tips of the same flame. In the simpler one (which this writing is named after) I state:
We’ve got to rewrite history
Showing the world we went to peace unpeacefully.
Would be a contradiction
If life wasn’t so precious
While people say it’s no use to fight, they’re going to strap you in and kill you regardless, I say they are wrong that it’s “no use.” This fight has nothing to do with fearing death or not being at peace, in fact the 4 men I’ve named were spiritually and mentally in tune, but it’s the point it makes. We must challenge the thinking process of the public; which the majority of them think the death penalty is right.
These are actions that show them a role is being played by them just as much as the officers who beat and cuff us, to the one who presses the lethal injection button. As they approve it they approve what comes from it; no different from approving a war where bombs get dropped and masses of innocent civilians are killed. We have to rewrite this twisted history. We cannot be contradictions of ourselves by not showing life is precious.
Years ago in places like Europe executions were carried out publicly like social gatherings. Who’s to say that the building up of that sick and vile regimen is not what has led them to now be the leading advocates to abolish the death penalty? Perhaps this is now why this sick method is carried out behind closed doors. If this process is so just and the government is so proud of it, why hide it?
I say because the horrors of it will enrage people and connect to that beautiful compassion WE ALL have in us towards one another; that which they don’t want you to surge forth for it would extinguish their dictatorship over our every action, thought and well-being. Point being, we here must surface these horrors once again so the people will know that monster still lives in our society, but now has a painted face.
While we may gain no physical reward, remember this, the only way to be free is to struggle and dedicate to a cause and fight without fear and through our ability to justify our cause we have broken every chain of oppression placed upon us. The message will be heard, the message MUST be heard, so how could we deny – The Time is NOW!
The time is now
I’m on borrowed time
To tell present stories of the past
My own Bible story told
1,2, 3 –
But I need an extra 60 seconds
Cause this Lethal Injection
Takes 5-7 minutes.
Smiles over my sentence
Who sell souls ½ off.
Gotta beat the juice,
Ain’t much changed since ‘strange fruit’ –
What started with rope and noose
Is now straps, currents and gas booths!
Messages ain’t subliminal
When a man screams
I’m human! (gasp) I’m human! (gasp)
Now wardens fight the ghost
I’m right. I’m right. I’m a Christian!
That’s a sedition worse than Jesus’ ending.
The son of God/Man
Now sends winds with tears
And calls them hurricanes
Why do we get so much pain?
Because it seems like after the storm
We all care a little bit more
Did you noticed that?
I resist the strap-
My own solitude cross.
That shape missed you huh?
They want you blind and dumb,
But I REFUSE to lose
Or walk the “mile” silent
Be a kamikaze pilot
And take 2 w/ me.
We’ve got to rewrite history
Showing the world we went to peace unpeacefully
Would be a contradiction
If life wasn’t so precious.
My time is running short
Here comes the report:
Man fights to death
No meal, no words
Actions said it all
Life is worth fighting for
Some injured, details undisclosed
Taped to his body a note:
A message to all those who doubt
Won’t fight for this blessing
Oppression… is worse than slaughter
Understand your part in this struggle
Never leave worthless
Prove your soul is priceless
When your time comes
The Time Is NOW!
The pep talk you hear before the battle
To tell me this is my last breath
is to gone and watch this world explode,
because commode –
couldn’t explain my living conditions,
but now you signing petitions
from trees… my ancestors chopped down.
I guess it must be true that
them oaks, you know… them souljas,
when they fall in the forest don’t make a sound.
Cause in 97, 37 were murdered in the jungle
by a serial killer w/ ruddy features on his cheek.
Santa Claus? a smudge?
pay closer attention deaf, blind, dumb
that was my lugas blood.
Now it’s masses in the line –
Let’s equate the dates
and murder rates
of this Auschwitz state,
but you still in awe about walking and talking serpents and snakes.
I been known about the couple, Lucifer and medusa
trying to reflect images upon me of harpo and kunta.
And yeah, my hair is even kind of straight,
how could I lie/deny
that you raped!
Now my grandma just sits and stares
at the blank wall or the picture of that burnt church by the stairs,
she’s been that way now for 30 years.
at 6, pretended daddy was gone hunting billy in the hills
for a BBQ picnic –
ranting, raving, shooting.
cause at 5 ½ knew he was still in prison,
so I guess we can call that my 1st
at 16, people was saying “he crazy.”
at 25, still contemplating,
cause I walk bold with my nose in the air.
naw man –
I’m flexing that big African thang with pizzazz!
Features like a Zulu/Shabazz
my everyday reminder to you.
Ancestors created life with hands
that built shelter on sand
raised up Tribes without a mule,
cotton or forgotten hanging bodies on their land.
The Color Purple
was the dried up version
of the red flowing blood that splattered the wall
from the youngster who strapped down and stood tall.
Wouldn’t make that silent walk.
Ended up getting beat by 9,
then the Sun cooked the stain from the window seal
that made it reek… then seek… us out in the summer time
making that death smell
creep into our cell
causing my sweating arm hair to stand at attention and flare
cause I’m next on the list!
this is my living nightmare –
a walking dead man,
woke but I’m sleep.
And as count was gave
we rattled our cage
my luga was bent on one knee…
praying for my Soul.
And as #’s were called
it was 999 upside down
sweat beads trickling from my nose.
Now we ready for the war,
eyes dead as the Sun went down
bible/Koran in hand
laws passing by scared
and yeah that was 2pac “Shed so many tears”
(our battle anthem)
playing in the background!
It’s time for War!
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Thanks for sharing this brilliant peice of work with us all. It’s a very interesting topic that you coverr here. I think it’s hypocritical having execution a a punishment for anything as the reason they are executing people is for killing, while at the same time, thats exactly what they are doing.
And we must not forget that many people that are executed are innocent of the crimes as well. The problem with executions is that once a man is proven innocent, well, it’s too late, the state already killed him …
Kenneth never killed anyone, he was sentenced to death under the law of parties that allows a man to be condemned to die for being present at a murder even without killing anyone or having prior knowledge of the killing, so basically the law of parties can condemn innocent men …
The justice system is seriously flawed and people are paying for it with their lives. Much must change.
I have had the honor of reading a few posts of yours with regard to Kenneth and each time I read one my respect grows more and more. This is pretty amazing considering I already had the utmost respect for him after the first post when I initially learned of his plight on death row.
Having had my own experiences in jail (not comparing this to death row by any stretch of the imagination, but still had my freedom taken away.) I know what it feels like to see another inmate abused by a guard and feeling, with all your might, the urge to help that person. I have also been threatened with punishment for speaking up, which did not bother me much, even though they whole situation was just wrong.
In my situation, the guard (who I might add had no experience in corrections and had actually worked at Circle K before getting a job at the jail) was yelling at a mentally disabled inmate who was literally speaking to a person she was seeing in her head when the guards were asking is to lock down. The situation was heartbreaking and the lack of compassion shown by this guaird and the ones in Ken’s story is unbelievable.
I have soo much respect for Mr, Foster for having the courage to speak up, in support of the other inmate. Even though this was all he could physically do at the time, this was enough. I promise you that man who was being led to state-sponsored murder, heard Ken’s words and drew strength from them.
So thank you for being there when others weren’t, in a time that was darker than most of us could ever imagine, for another soul who is just as worthy as the rest of us. Thank you and keep writing. We are reading!
Thank you, Ashley! That’s what I hope, that we are reading. I will share more by Kenneth soon.
Thank you also for sharing your experiences! It’s horrible that that guard was yelling at a person who had mental issues, the lack of compassion … it shows that this might be the norm and not the exception …
I will pass on your comment to Kenneth 🙂
Thank you, for sharing these words. I defy anyone not to be reduced to tears when they read these words. I read the whole thing twice and cried both times. I have been a lifelong pacifist and a lifelong proponent of the abolition of the death penalty.
Many years ago I lived in Spain and I watched three horrific documentaries (they don’t have the censorship that other countries have) about the death penalty. They showed graphic detail someone dying by every single method, in every single country in the world. That was over 20 years ago and it still makes me feel sick. They were all horrific, but the methods used in America with the worst. I wouldn’t treat an animal like that never mind a human being. We will never advance as a people until we stop these barbaric practices.
Thank you for your words. I absolutely agree. It isn’t possible to read this essay and these poems without feeling affected. As human beings we can indeed not advance unless we stop this cruelty.
Hi Cristine. Thank you for another story. It made me a goose bumps again. I think that everyone with the right proportion of emotional intelligence would be touched by that and similar stories you share on your blog. In case of Kenneth, it is still unbelievable that for what he did( or didn’t) he still serves his sentence until 2036 (if I understood it correctly). Especially in country as U.S., which is proudly aspiring being the number one country basically in everything. Let me know what if I can do something to support.
Your support would be very much appreciated. Sharing these articles will definitely help and there’s also a raffle coming up which is organized for Kenneth’s birthday (it’s on his Facebook page “Rise Kenneth Foster”), if you could share that, that would be great!
Thank you for your comment! 🙂
What a compelling article. Human beings make mistakes but they also learn from them. Why, then, can’t we as a society show compassion and help those in need, learn to forgive, and create more just criminal justice systems? So many are mistakenly on death row. And so many have reformed and deserve a second chance.
I hope this article and others like it are brought into the mainstream. Thank you for posting this. I’m sending it along.
As an after thought, the words to his poems would be poignant lyrics for a song.
Again, thanks for posting this.
Thank you, Nina! I agree, they would indeed be great for a song. I’ll mention it to Kenneth, you never know, it might lead to something. Thanks for bringing up that idea! And thanks for sharing as well! It all helps 🙂
There are so many injustices out there. We need to forgive people especially those who we know are reformed. People can truly be reformed. Yes, a lot took the wrong path but everyone makes mistakes. And really is an eye for an eye the real root to forgiveness?? Many people are sorry for their actions and many of the victims families forgive those who took their loved one’s lives.
Unless we learn to forgive we will never become a better society. I don’t know what else to say.
Thanks for the article.
So what’s the answer? An eye for an eye or reformation and forgiveness?
I think we all know the answer, except for authorities who are supposed to be fair but seem to be more focused on getting maximum convictions to further their careers. The justice system is flawed and gives no chances to people who have reformed. It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it, that the justice system doesn’t seem to give a chance to redemption?