A fateful shooting boosts the career of a cub reporter and lands a young radical behind bars. A chance meeting four decades later launches the unlikeliest of publishing partnerships.
On a typical sunny day at San Quentin State Prison, twelve miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, California, large flocks of geese settle in the prison yard. The prison is an oddly peaceful place, surrounded by a cluster of residential houses where mothers push toddlers in strollers and people walk their dogs down to the nearby beach. William Drummond, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, visits at least once a week, but only to go to the small newsroom of San Quentin News, one of the few inmate-run publications in the country.
Drummond enters the main gate of the famed penitentiary and wends his way through the lower yard, past the men playing basketball. Many of the inmates greet him as he walks by, heading towards the education area where the newsroom is located. Drummond is sixty-nine, slender, with a firm head of grey hair, and looks perpetually bemused. It’s this reticent good humor that makes him popular with the staff of San Quentin News. They perceive him and the journalism students he brings to the prison as a welcome respite from their secluded life behind bars.
One of the News staff, a tall man named Watani Stiner, greets Drummond with a handshake and a slow nod, resembling the bobbing of a graceful bird. His eyes often shaded by a baseball cap, Stiner is just one more inmate at San Quentin who is doing time. The News’s editor-in-chief is serving sixty-five-to-life for burglary, robbery and skipping bail; the managing editor is doing fifty-five-to-life for bank robbery.
Drummond spends time talking to all of the men about the events of the day, bringing news and information from the outside. Inmates are not allowed Internet access, so the staff of San Quentin News relies on him for assistance. Drummond also provides invaluable advice on writing and reporting, urging the inmates to apply the diligence and care that Drummond exemplifies in his own reporting. Watani Stiner has his own column, “The ‘OG’s Perspective,” in which he presents his views from the perspective of the “Old Guard,” as someone who has been in San Quentin for nearly half of his adult life. Drummond is there to provide advice and writing instruction, but the OG’s words are his alone.
Drummond tells me later that Stiner is well-respected within the penitentiary and describes him as a “political prisoner.”
Every time he sees Stiner, Drummond says he thinks, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That’s because Drummond believes it’s not impossible that he himself could have ended up as an inmate, too, because he shared Watani’s same radical sense of injustice and anger bred by the racial oppression of the 1960s. One man stayed inside the bounds of society, and the other fought the power.
* * *
On the afternoon of January 17, 1969, as a large group of about 130 African-American students filed out of Campbell Hall, Room 1201, on UCLA’s Westwood campus, shots were fired. The scene, according to sources, was mayhem: Bullets ricocheted wildly and students plastered themselves against the walls, seeking shelter from gunfire.
The meeting held at Campbell 1201 was nominally about UCLA’s proposed African-American studies program. But two black radical groups — the Black Panther Party and the US Organization — were in the midst of a battle for control of the African-American studies department, and the devotion of black students to each of their factions. It was a showdown.
The Black Panther Party originated in Oakland, California, in the early ’60s and has since become synonymous with a militant ideology and approach to civil rights activism – although they also founded the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which fed many hungry Oakland African-American kids. Their “Ten-Point Plan,” published in a 1967 issue of The Black Panther newspaper, explains their ideas as focused on achieving freedom, employment, and decent housing for all African-Americans, along with an end to police brutality against them.
In contrast, the US Organization — often incorrectly called “United Slaves,” though the shortened name “US” was actually intended as a pun on “us and them” — focused on creating a new, more empowering cultural understanding for African-Americans through the study of African languages like Swahili and Arabic. US was founded in 1965 by Maulana Karenga, who changed his name from “Ron Everett” to the Swahili “Karenga,” which means “keeper of tradition.” Its members frequently followed his lead, taking on new names and wearing traditional African clothing. Karenga is also widely credited with starting the tradition of Kwanzaa.
Though their sectarian differences have often been exaggerated, competition for new members and power between the Black Panthers and US grew in the years leading up to the shooting of ’69.
After the gunfire ceased outside Campbell Hall, two Black Panthers were dead: Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins — both up-and-coming leaders of the party. One account has it that Huggins fired his gun even after he had been shot and lay bleeding on the floor, squeezing the trigger as his body twitched in death.
The front-page headline of the Los Angeles Times the next day read: “2 Black Panther Students Slain in UCLA Hall.” William Drummond was the co-author of the article.
Larry Stiner and his brother George, two members of US, were both at the event. Larry (who would later change his name to Watani) was there working security detail but says he was unarmed. He was just twenty years old and majoring in political science through UCLA’s “High Potential Program,” which was intended to facilitate a greater number of minorities at UCLA, where, even today, less than four percent of undergraduate students are African-American.
In the days following the shooting, Larry Stiner, wounded in the shoulder by a bullet from Huggins’ gun, discovered that he and his brother, as well as a man named Claude “Chuchessa” Hubert, were wanted by the police under the theory that they, as members of US, had planned the attack with the intention of killing members of the Black Panthers. The Stiner brothers turned themselves in; since they hadn’t shot anyone, they thought they would quickly be released. Hubert was never arrested and never heard from again.
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Accounts of what actually happened the day of the shooting are sparse and contradictory. Theories range from a planned attack by US on the Black Panther Party to a spontaneous emotional outburst stemming from an angry encounter, to an FBI-orchestrated plot to assassinate Huggins and Carter. An eyewitness to the UCLA shooting, now a family therapist in Santa Monica, recently came forward and said that only Hubert had fired any shots. “No one else deserves blame,” he said.
Whatever the cause, the shooting hastened the Black Panther’s battle with US. Two more Black Panther Party members were shot and killed in 1969; one of them, possibly, according to some tenuous Black Panther accounts, to prevent him from testifying against US members at a trial in connection to the UCLA shootings.
The district attorney prosecuting the US members allegedly involved in the shooting later told a reporter that he could not have won the case against the Stiner brothers without the assistance of the Black Panther Party and nine of its members, who all eagerly testified against them.
Larry and George didn’t think that they would be convicted — they declared they hadn’t fired any shots, though witnesses placed them getting into a car and speeding away from the scene. The prosecution theorized that the Stiner brothers, along with other members of US, had premeditated and organized an attack against Huggins and Carter, staging a hit.
As a result, the Stiner brothers and another man were convicted of a conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life in prison.
* * *
The famous 1975 Senate Church Committee revealed that the FBI was gathering intelligence on the Black Panther Party, US and other black groups throughout the mid-twentieth century. Those files are now accessible to the public.
The FBI planted informants in the parties and purposely incited violence between US and the Black Panther Party by sending poison-pen letters from one party to another. Many suspect that the January 17, 1969, shooting may have been related to such FBI intervention.
Documents from the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which stands for “Counterintelligence Program,” indicate that the agency’s goal was to disrupt those groups. One states: “No opportunity should be missed to exploit through counterintelligence techniques the organizational and personal conflicts of the leaderships of the groups and where possible an effort should be made to capitalize upon existing conflicts between competing black nationalist organizations.”
Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, an influential Black Panther member, describes an FBI memo that discussed one such counterintelligence technique. The memo proposed that an anonymous letter should be sent to the Black Panther Party, supposedly from US, stating that US was aware of a “contract” to kill Karenga and that, in retaliation, US planned to ambush the Black Panthers. Elaine Brown, who would assume an important role in the Black Panther Party after the UCLA shootings, later argued that the entire US party was an FBI-financed group designed to destroy the Black Panthers.
An ex-FBI agent named M. Wesley Swearingen wrote about FBI activities and COINTELPRO informants in his 1995 book FBI Secrets: An Agent’s Exposé. He claimed that the Stiner brothers were FBI informants. Another man who claims he was a Black Panther and FBI informant, “Othello,” gave an interview with Penthouse magazine in which he, too, alleged that the Stiners were FBI informants. Othello claims that he saw the Stiner brothers and Hubert get into a Chevrolet driven by an FBI agent shortly after the UCLA shooting, and that he saw them on another occasion in the FBI building being debriefed by another agent. It remains unclear whether any of these men were official informants, unofficial informants, or any combination of the above.
Watani Stiner denies that he was ever a confidential informant – a claim that seems believable, considering his long incarceration in San Quentin.
No FBI agents have ever been punished or censured for participation in these activities, which resulted in the deaths and incarceration of black men for crimes that may have been anticipated or plotted by the FBI.
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William Drummond was born in Oakland, and though he’s had many stints abroad, he lives there today. After receiving degrees from Berkeley and Columbia University, Drummond worked briefly in Louisville before joining the staff of the Los Angeles Times in 1967. At twenty-three years old, he was the youngest reporter on the city staff, and says he was considered a “little bit” of a radical.
Drummond brought an interest in the civil rights movement and black radicals to the L.A. Times. While his ambition was to be a foreign correspondent, he found plenty to occupy himself with in L.A. He wrote about political dissidents, including a long article about Eldridge Cleaver. Drummond also wrote about San Quentin State Prison, describing concerns surrounding the segregation of black and white inmates, which still exists today.
On January 17, 1969, Drummond was working in the newsroom when he received word that two Black Panthers had been shot at UCLA. He co-wrote the next day’s L.A. Times piece — the first time Drummond had a page-one byline.
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“I think it is important to note that this warrior mindset of the 1960s didn’t just arise out of a vacuum. It emerged from a violent and oppressive condition of racial segregation.”
– Watani Stiner
An “OG’s” Perspective, San Quentin News
Born in 1948, Larry Stiner spent his early childhood in Houston drinking out of the “colored” fountains. In 1955, he and his family moved west to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles had quickly become the center of black radical movements in California. The city was primed by discriminatory housing regulations, which prevented African-Americans from living outside of East or South Los Angeles. After racial tensions in L.A. ignited the Watts Rebellion in August of 1965 – riots sparked by an incident of alleged police brutality – Stiner, looking for a way to connect with his African-American heritage, joined the US Organization, persuading his wife and brother to do so as well.
Stiner came to the US Organization an angry man, enraged at the racist society he saw around him. He recalls that he first encountered US and its founder, Karenga, at the Aquarian— a black bookstore later destroyed in the 1992 L.A. riots — where he was astounded at the first Kwanzaa celebration. The sight of the traditional African attire worn by Karenga and his followers filled him with a warm sense of belonging, the opposite of those “colored” fountains. Shortly afterwards, he changed his name from Larry to what he calls the more “African-sounding ‘Watani.’”
* * *
After his conviction, Watani Stiner was sent to Soledad State Prison. About a month later, a white prison guard there fired shots into the middle of a group of inmates, supposedly to quell a riot. Three black inmates died; one white inmate was injured. A judge ruled that this shooting was “justifiable homicide.” Seventy-two hours later, a white guard was found dead, supposedly in retaliation for the shooting. Authorities accused three black men who would come to be known as the Soledad Brothers— George Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgoole. Jackson had co-founded the Black Guerilla Family, an African-American prison gang, in 1966; Stiner had become friends with Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers through whispered conversations between the walls in solitary.
Later, Stiner, along with other suspected black militants including George Jackson, was moved to San Quentin, a place that reflected the troubled race relations that existed throughout the country. In 1971, white guards at San Quentin killed George Jackson after Jackson supposedly initiated an escape attempt. The subsequent riot ended with six total deaths: three guards and three inmates, including Jackson.
The 1971 escape attempt colors California prison policy today: The image of the inmate as a violent revolutionary serving as justification for increasingly draconian measures, including the continual separation of inmates by race in order to reduce gang violence. California prison authorities live in fear of prison riots and gang violence, and the use of solitary confinement as a way to prevent so-called “shot-callers” from influencing the mainline inmates derives from a deep anxiety over loss of control.
Last year’s Pelican Bay State Prison hunger strikes protested some of the policies implemented to keep alleged gang leaders separated from the general inmate population. The American flag always flies at half-mast at San Quentin to represent the deaths of guards in prison riots.
* * *
In the wee night hours of March 30, 1974, the Stiner brothers escaped from San Quentin during a family visit when they were allowed to stay in a minimum-security trailer. Watani disguised himself as an itinerant preacher, making his way out of the country, and then escaping to the small South American nation of Guyana, which was at the time an international haven for black radicals. A few years later, he fled to neighboring Suriname, where he re-married and eventually had six children. (He also has two children from his previous marriage.)
Life in Suriname proved difficult. After his family was chased out of their home by government-backed soldiers, they moved to a house in the bush without electricity or running water.
Stiner writes that he grew increasingly concerned about his children and family, something that had often taken a back seat to the “bigger picture — the ‘organization,’ the ‘ideology,’ and the ‘revolution.’” But, after experiencing government-sanctioned violence in both Guyana and Suriname, Stiner was dubious of empty promises.
On February 5, 1994, weary of poverty, full of worries for his family, and dodging a violent government, Stiner says he surrendered himself at the American embassy under an array of assurances that he would be able to bring his wife and children to the United States. But the government delayed immigration proceedings, claiming that because his wife and children could not independently support themselves, they would not be permitted to enter the United States.
Though Nancy Pelosi and other government officials petitioned on his behalf, it would take more than ten years for Stiner to be reunited with his children.
* * *
Watani Stiner was tried and convicted for his escape from San Quentin twenty years after the fact. Once the jury gave their guilty verdict, he told them, “I’m sure you did the right thing.”
At his sentencing hearing, a probation officer recommended that Stiner receive no additional prison time for his escape. The district attorney assigned to the case sought three additional years. The judge imposed no additional time for the escape, citing the law-abiding life Stiner had lived during his time abroad.
At his first parole hearing in 1996, Stiner was denied parole, based primarily on rationale put forth by the L.A. Deputy District Attorney Mark Vazzani, who said that Stiner’s surrender and request to bring his family to the United States was “hypocrisy.” Vazzani argued that Watani’s insistence on bringing his family home was nothing short of ridiculous for a man who had so opposed the government as a youth.
* * *
“Criminals who lack care for their impact on others are selfish…But there is not an equivalent recognition of the values in society that promote such a mindset. Valuing human life, valuing honesty…these need to be woven into the core fabric of our nation.”
– Watani Stiner
An “OG’s” Perspective, San Quentin News
In the interim, William Drummond went on to have a distinguished journalism career. In 1971, he became the bureau chief of the L.A. Times in New Delhi, then a staff writer for the paper’s Washington bureau. In the late 1970s, Drummond was President Jimmy Carter’s associate press secretary.
He left to work for NPR in 1979, and finally ended up as a professor of journalism at Berkeley in 1983, where he has since remained. He won the National Press Club Foundation Award, the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award for Journalism Excellence and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Black Condition.
He also taught a class called “Emotional Balance for Working Journalists,” in which he emphasized that journalists carry the weight of loss, trauma and injustice with them when they leave their stories behind. Drummond wrote in an essay that the class was inspired by his wife’s struggle with cancer, which ended in her death in 2003. He also began teaching a journalism class for beginners at San Quentin.
Then, one fall day in 2011, in the temporary structures that constitute the education buildings at San Quentin, an inmate cryptically told William Drummond: “Someone says he knows you.”
His classroom was full of students, some more skilled at writing than others, but all were eager to learn more about the outside world. Some had been in prison for decades, many for violent crimes. Drummond was always curious to know what his students were in for — it was part of his natural reporter instinct. He wasn’t sure which inmate his student was speaking about when he received the strange message. Since he had written about so many people over the course of his career, he figured it could be anyone.
It turned out that this student was talking about Watani Stiner, who had remembered Drummond’s name from the front-page L.A. Times coverage of the UCLA shootings.
Drummond later met Stiner in the yard, where those inmates with a lower-level custody classification spend their recreation time playing basketball and baseball, attending classes and participating in religious, creative and self-improvement groups. Drummond says that he was immediately struck by Stiner’s demeanor, which was self-possessed and quiet.
He had never met Stiner before, but he recognized the name from the 1969 UCLA shooting, an unforgettable moment during his tenure at the L.A. Times.
At the invitation of the inmate staff, Drummond began to work with San Quentin News later that year. He brings small groups of Berkeley students to San Quentin at least once a week during the school year to assist inmates with editing and writing stories. He now sees Stiner regularly, since he is part of the News staff. Drummond says that he admires the way younger inmates look up to Stiner and that he “feels a great fondness” for Stiner himself.
“An OG’s Perspective” highlights Stiner’s role as an older African-American man, giving advice to younger men entering the prison system — a role that isn’t invented just for the paper. He rules the yard with a quiet authority, very different from the behavior outsiders might expect from an inmate. Many of the men he mentors grew up without fathers; Stiner’s eldest son also grew up without his father. This is something Stiner feels keenly, the regret at placing his family second to his revolutionary ideals.
As he once wrote: “In San Quentin, I’m now looked up to by the younger generation as an ‘OG’ — original gangster. Every day I see the lost souls of our troubled youth — the holes in their spirits and the yearnings for the broken fathers who have abandoned them. I pray they aren’t mirrors of what my own children will become.”
Drummond, for his part, is impressed with the way Stiner commands the attention of many other inmates, especially the younger ones who come to prison looking for an example to follow. “The idea of an OG being an object of veneration has affected me,” Drummond wrote in an email interview.
When I met Drummond in his office at Berkeley Journalism School, he was wearing round glasses and suspenders with a musician motif. He’s outspoken on his political views, though he sometimes deviates from the expected liberal mainline arguments, insisting, for example, that some people do deserve tough prison sentences.
In our short time together, he challenged me to see the prison system as a complex interplay between correctional officers, authority, inmates and the community. It’s clear that the San Quentin News means a lot to him; his photo on his website at Berkeley is of him holding an edition, proudly.
* * *
When I first met Watani Stiner, he told me of Drummond, “He was just doing his job.”
Stiner is tall, quiet and gentle, folding himself like a praying mantis into regulation prison chairs.
Drummond and Stiner have clearly lived very different lives, but the respect they have for each other is clear. As they sit in the office of the San Quentin News, the talk moves from the black power movements of the 1960s to today’s prison politics to their families. Stiner talks to Drummond about the anxieties he has for his children, and they share their hopes that new communities can be forged through words and debate rather than violence.
Drummond says that interacting with Stiner has increased his sense of his own “hidden OG,” by which he means his responsibility as an elder with experience to impart onto younger people. Both of them emphasize the importance of community. Drummond urges his students to go into the community and talk to people; one of his assignments for undergraduates is for them to sit through a day in criminal court to see firsthand how people are processed through the system. Through his column, Stiner urges others to think of themselves as a part of a community.
“The revolutionary spirit of George Jackson has been exorcised from the walls of San Quentin. It is almost certain, however, that unjust laws and the rapid rate of incarceration in California will evoke his spirit again.”
– Watani Stiner
An “OG’s” Perspective, San Quentin News
* * *
The same racial discrimination that Stiner and Drummond rebelled against in 1969 still exists today, and still plagues the prison system. In 1994, eight California prison guards were accused of violating the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. The guards were accused of setting up gladiator-style fights between inmates of different races at Corcoran State Prison outside of Fresno, California. One inmate testified that a guard boasted that it was “duck hunting season” before arranging these fights in a yard intended for recreation. Preston Tate, an inmate, was shot to death for trying to stop one of these fights. His family received a settlement of $825,000. After a witness changed her testimony to praise the guards, a jury acquitted the eight guards.
During his own trial, the prosecution painted Stiner and his brother as dangerous thugs. Stiner protested this characterization: He was a revolutionary. How could his acts ever be compared to the long list of crimes committed against African-Americans by society and the government? Today Stiner is markedly anti-violence, although he keeps some of the revolutionary spirit burning inside.
Both Stiner and Drummond lived through the same history and have come out the other side to a time where things have not changed as much as both would have wished. Both men see widespread racism, particularly prevalent in the prison system, where black men are six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. They both embrace their roles as leaders of the next generation, hoping that reaching individuals will bring greater shifts in society.
“So in my rejection of violence…I realize that it is necessary to articulate an alternate vision for confronting violence and injustice,” Stiner writes in An “OG’s” Perspective. “Nonviolence does not negate uncompromising resistance to social forces and structures that deny or limit human freedom.”
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Jessica Pishko has a J.D. from Harvard Law School and an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She lives in San Francisco and tweets here.