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Kevin Cooper:
"I am an abolitionist"

February 13, 2004 | Page 2

HERE, WE reprint one of Kevin's many writings. This article was first published in the New Abolitionist in September 1999 (

One day in 1991, I was out on the yard playing basketball when an officer called my name and told me that I was wanted inside. When I asked him what I was wanted for, he just turned and walked away. After being handcuffed behind my back, I was taken from the yard to inside the unit, where I was placed in a holding cell where I was uncuffed and told to wait.

In the six years that I had been in this prison, I had never felt more alive than while sitting in that holding cell, soaking wet with sweat. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and my blood running in my veins. I could hear my breathing and taste my sweat. I couldn't wait to get back outside to finish playing basketball. Basketball not only kept me in great physical shape, but it was also a way for me to escape from this prison environment for a couple of hours every day.

While in the holding cell, I was approached by a man wearing a suit and tie, not a uniform like the officers who work in the unit wear. The man asked me my name and number, and I told him Cooper C-65304. He then told me that I, Kevin Cooper C-65304, had been given an execution date.

Before I had a chance to take in what he had just said to me, he then pushed a piece of paper into the holding cell and told me to read the paper along with him. My mind went totally blank, and I did not hear one word that he said. I just stared at this paper that was my death warrant.

Finally, when his voice did start to penetrate my mind, I caught these words: "You, Kevin Cooper, must choose your method of execution. You can choose between lethal gas or lethal injection, but you have to choose, because if you don't choose between one or the other, we the State of California will choose for you, and we will choose lethal gas--the gas chamber."

I, who minutes before was so full of life and who had just been playing basketball outside under the clear blue sky, was now having to decide my own death.

After I had regrouped and gathered myself, I chose lethal injection. Up until this point in time, I had been trying to make some kind of life for myself while on death row, and even though I knew that I was sent here to be executed, I had not thought that I would be. I, like so many other people who are on death row, sometimes forget why I was sent here, and it takes a wake-up call like I had just received to put everything back into its proper context.

In 1985, when I first came to San Quentin's death row, I can honestly say that I truly didn't give a damn if I was executed or not, because I was so full of rage, anger, hatred, pain and frustration after being wrongly convicted of murders and sentenced to death.

When I came to this prison and saw firsthand the filth, the violence, the hopelessness, the gang wars, the prison brutality and all the other negative things that went on in this place, I knew that I was now in a world where I had never been before, and if I was going to survive in this living hell, I was going to have to make some real changes in my life.

Though at that point in time, I didn't care about being executed, I did care enough about myself to know that I had to do something in a positive manner in order to live in such a negative place. If I had gotten involved in negative things, then not only would I put my life in danger, but I would also give in to this system that wanted to kill me. Being killed by the state is one thing, but being killed by another inmate is something else altogether. I knew who my fight was with, and just as importantly who it wasn't with.

I decided that I did not want to get caught up in prison politics or prison gangs or games. I knew that education was going to be the key to any hope that I had to better myself, so I started to educate myself. I changed this cell into my classroom and learning center, and in doing so, I was able to avoid many of the traps that many men in here find themselves in.

It wasn't until 1991, when I received my first of four execution dates, that I truly understood the reality of my situation. Though I had read many books or papers about the death penalty, it was not the same, nor did it have the same effect on me, as receiving a personal execution date did.

Once I began to truly understand and come to terms with my situation on a personal basis, I began to understand it on a historical basis. Shortly after this, I wrote my very first article, "A Plea to the Black Community." I wrote it from my heart. I did this because every time I would look at an anti-death penalty demonstration, I saw very few or no African-American people there, which hurt me deeply.

Doors began to open to other topics just as soon as I would finish one, and I continued to walk through these doors then, just as I do now. I also had a lot of help from many different people. There are men in here who helped me by giving me books to read after they found out that I was for real about educating myself. I also received help from friends and family.

I guess the bottom line is this--we all have to make real-life decisions at one time or another in our lives. I decided to live--and not die just because I was sentenced to die. Because if I did not make the decision to live, I would be making the decision to die--a decision that I as an innocent man could not do.

In hindsight, this seems so easy, but in fact, the decision to live and make a life for myself in this living hell was the hardest decision that I ever had to make in my life. But it is a decision that I am truly happy that I made, because in doing so, I have become a much better person.

I am an activist and an abolitionist, and my work speaks to this. I know that the death penalty is not only about me, Kevin Cooper, but is much, much bigger. In my mind and through my eyes, this is about a system that has historically and systematically executed men, women and children who look just like me, whether from the standpoint of the color of their skin or from the standpoint of their class and background.

I am a part of the machine that we are building to put an end to this crime against humanity that this government uses. I am no more, and no less, than that.

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