(this article was also published at indianvoices.net)
Secwepemc Activist Fights for the Freedom of Chickasaw Political Prisoner Orlando Watley
brad werner and cristian garcia
“Orlando Watley's case is a case for freedom. It's a case to expose the injustice that is happening here in this country. The judicial system, the prison system that put our people away... He is caught up in that. And he is one-hundred percent innocent.”
Orlando Watley, a Chickasaw Native from Corcoran, California, has been a political prisoner for twenty-two years, convicted of a crime he didn't commit, according to Kanahus Manuel of the Orlando Watley Innocence Project. Living in the Palm Springs area with relatives to attend community college, he was charged and acquitted of a double armed robbery and attempted murder in 1993. While falsely imprisoned on that charge, he was charged and convicted of a triple homicide by Riverside County, which, according to press reports at the time, was pursuing a political project to clear unsolved cases.
“They were targeting people, they were targeting colored people and Native Youth... When you start looking at all of these cases here in the so-called America. And you look at the jail house snitches. You look at the junk science they use to put people away... The prison system depends on putting countless numbers of Indigenous and colored people away to keep those prisons afloat. It's a business and a moneymaker,” said Kanahus in an interview conducted in Los Angeles on November 11, 2015.
The criminalist on Orlando's case, Daniel Gregonis, has been found to have fabricated evidence in the high-profile death penalty case of Kevin Cooper, who remains on death row for murder in California, despite this finding. Five 9th Circuit of Appeals judges, led by Judge William Fletcher, determined that Daniel Gregonis had falsified DNA blood evidence linking Cooper to the murder. The evidence used to convict Orlando is characterized by similar problems, including inconsistencies in trial testimony. Additional problems uncovered by an independent molecular biologist show that improper procedures rendered the DNA results meaningless and that it was not possible for Gregonis to have obtained the results he claimed at Orlando's trial.
The Orlando Watley Innocence Project has been established to exonerate Orlando Watley and secure his immediate release. They are seeking attorneys, molecular biologists, activists, law students, and spiritual people - good-hearted people - to work on all aspects of the case for Orlando Watley's freedom. Spearheading this effort, Kanahus Manuel, a Secwepemc activist, has a long history as a warrior for Indigenous freedoms and land, and is most recently working on resistance to the effects and coverup of the Imperial Metals Polley Mine disaster in the Shuswap region of so-called British Columbia.
Despite having lived the last twenty-two years in a “box the size of a bathroom,” Orlando has maintained his connection to his traditional ways, teaching his fellow inmates traditional songs and running a weekly sweat lodge. “We were walking up to the B visiting area there. We heard them… singing the American Indian Movement song. That's a freedom song. That's a warrior song. That's what we sing when we fight. I just felt so proud that I started singing with them,” Kanahus said. A teaching that Orlando shares with his brothers is that “Every breath is a prayer. Every single breath is a prayer.” Kanahus adds “If we were all to live our life like that - taking the sacredness of every breath we take as a prayer - we wouldn't be living in this type of madness and mayhem in the society.”
Before October, the last time Orlando saw his Mother was eighteen years ago when, as Orlando puts it, “she sat before the jury asking them not to kill me for a crime I didn't commit.” Kanahus was touched by that and drove to Corcoran and “picked his Mother up, and we drove all the way down to Calipatria, which took a long time. And we went in to go visit her son, but they turned us away on that Saturday, because her California I.D. was expired, so she couldn't go in to visit him.” The next morning, Kanahus convinced the prison officials to allow Orlando's Mother to visit. “He didn't expect her to be able to get in that second day, so, when he came into the visiting area, and he saw her there, yeah, that was...[sigh]. Just being a Mother you know, just being a Mother I know how she touched, how they touched each others hearts without saying any words. Just the power of a Mother and a son. They just held each other. [Orlando's Mother] said, 'I don't even know what to say'... [Orlando] replied, 'you don't have to say anything, you just sitting here beside me is enough.' And so we all just sat there.”
“So one time, after a visit, we were leaving the visiting area, and he had let out a little war hoop, and there was all the gate fence and high barb wire on there [separating us]. So I looked over and I was walking with all the women and all the wives and the mothers walking out. My spirit wanted to war cry, and I was like, I'm not gonna hold it back. So I pumped my fist and war cried, and all those prisoners just looked over. And after I find out they say 'wow, she did that, she did that. We felt that, we felt that.' They need that in there, they need that,” Kanahus said.
Kanahus related Orlando's case to the historical context of colonialism. “Their police and their military were formed, and their first operations were against Indigenous peoples, were against the resistance opposing their colonial institutions. It was our people fighting for the land. They didn't just pick up Geronimo and the warriors and hold them in the prisons and in the concentration camps. They picked up everybody. Because of the color of our skin, because of what's in our blood, the blood and bones of us and our connection to the Earth.”
One present-day form of colonial oppression is the for-profit prison industrial complex, according to Angela Davis, Distinguished Professor and activist, and Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow. As Kanahus observed, “throughout the whole Americas, they're picking our people up. I was just talking to one of the Mayan sisters from Guatemala, and their whole fight too, they're fighting for their political prisoners. And down in Mapuche Territory, they're fighting for their political prisoners, up in Canada, here in the U.S... These prison systems, our ancestors would never do this to our people. There were other ways that we conducted and upheld our laws... These are major
Indigenous and human rights violations, by forcing us into their court system, by forcing us into their prison system... They do not have jurisdiction or authority over us.”
Kanahus connects Orlando's case to imprisonment of the land, arguing that the freedom of political prisoners, Indigenous peoples and the land are inherently intertwined. “When you walk to the top of a mountain, and you look down and you see a complete valley that's untouched, and you see the creeks that are forming into rivers, and you see the glaciers, and you are able to breathe fresh air, and see the deer live free, and the moose live free, and the bears live free, and you can stand on the top of the mountain and shout out a war cry of freedom. That is what we all deserve. But when you look at all the mining, and all the oil pipelines, and the oil and gas industry and the major transportation corridors that are cutting through our lands, and you look at Indigenous people forced on to reservations, and Indigenous people displaced into major urban settings and cities, you see our freedom being taken from us.”
Why is Kanahus Manuel committed to the struggle to free Orlando Watley? “To be able to put myself in a place the size of a bathroom for twenty-two years, I'm blown away, especially when you are an innocent person. I'll advocate until he gets his freedom. Because I don't know who would fight for me. That's one of the things I have been saying to people, 'Who would fight for you?'”
Despite the considerable hurdles to liberation for political prisoners, as illustrated by the struggles for Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal and countless others, Kanahus envisions a time when Orlando will be free. “I say those prayers outside the prison gates, and I lay my tobacco and my prayers down, and I see it, I see him walking out of there.”
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To view the video interview with Kanahus Manuel, go to http://sandiego.indymedia.org/node/3915
brad werner and cristian garcia are volunteers with the San Diego Independent Media Center: http://sandiego.indymedia.org