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Q&A with Eddie Conway: Former prisoner works to bring people together

Eddie Conway, left, with Dominque Stevenson and Russell “Green-Bey” Green. Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

Eddie Conway is a former Black Panther political prisoner. He served 43 years in the Maryland prison system for a crime he has maintained he did not commit. During this time, he organized many campaigns and programs to assist the prison population, including AFSC's Friend of a Friend program. In addition, Eddie authored two books, The Greatest Threat: COINTELPRO and The Black Panther Party and Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, co-authored with AFSC Program Director Dominque Stevenson.

On March 4, 2014, Eddie was granted his freedom under a ruling (Unger vs. State of Maryland) by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court determined that judges had given improper jury instructions that led to unfair trials. This ruling has affected about 200 cases in Maryland spanning a period of time between the late 1960s and early 1980s. It has also resulted in the release of 56 people, six of whom were members of Friend of a Friend. Since Eddie’s release, he has spoken at local colleges and universities, conducted an interview with Democracy Now, and continued his work as an organizer in Baltimore. At present, he is working with AFSC's Baltimore office as a Community Outreach Specialist intern. Following is an interview with Eddie that took place as he approached his fourth month of freedom.

Dominque Stevenson: You have been home for approximately four months, what is life like?

Eddie Conway: It is exciting—I get to see things that I haven’t seen for 45 years, I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before—buildings that did not exist, the Inner Harbor, the light rail, a host of new things. I am busy, but I try to find time to relax. I’m just reading my first book since being released. I used to read every day.

DS: What are the challenges?

EC: Initially, I thought I would have some time to relax, adjust, but that wasn’t the case. After seeing the conditions in Baltimore, I felt that something needed to be done. Riding through the city and seeing people in a stupor, or nodding in front of abandoned buildings made me realize how much the city and the population had deteriorated since the ’70s. This tugged at my consciousness because it seemed like there was a sense of hopelessness. I felt the need to do something about it. That is what we do in Friend of a Friend—restore hope.

DS: What are you doing to restore hope?

EC: I am working to bring an array of people together to put the neighbor back in the hood, so to speak. We are trying to build relationship by supporting the community—providing lunches, school supplies and working with residents around issues that affect them. For instance, there is a basketball court in disrepair, we are trying to get it restored so that the youth have some place to play ball. We are also hosting a community cookout to bring our group of concerned people together with community members and youth. In addition, Friend of a Friend has partnered with a high school in Baltimore—Connexions School for the Arts. They do not have a library, so we are organizing a book drive to establish that library by September. The school also is incorporating Friend of a Friend into some of their activities and curriculum.

DS: How has the transition been for your family members and friends?

EC: They are obviously happy, but I am not as available as I was when I was in prison. Obviously I couldn’t move around like I now do. Sometimes I feel that I am not as attentive as I was when I was locked up, and my desire to reach out and interact with everyone is not realistic because I don’t have that kind of time anymore. There are too many people, too many things, just too much to do, (laughs) and too many places to be.

DS: Where are some of the places you prefer to be now that you can move around?

EC: I can’t be in the places I want to be right now. I’d like to go to New Orleans, Paris and Africa. I really want to go to Kilimanjaro and walk up the mountain, but I am under strict supervision through the Department of Parole and Probation, and they do not generally allow recreational travel. However, the state did let me go to Ohio to visit my grandchildren because I had never seen them outside of prison. This was an exceptional decision on their part, but I had to keep pushing through the bureaucracy to get them to grant permission. They originally refused me.

DS: What is your daily routine, and how has it changed since you were in prison?

EC: I still wake up at three o’clock in the morning and stay awake for a couple of hours. Three a.m. is count time in the prison, the guards come by and verify that you are alive by shining a light in your face. For the last four decades, I have had that light shined in my face nightly, and I am still waking up at this time. It is part of the rhythm of my life. Daily I am running—working at home or in community—on the phone, attending meetings, and I struggle to get a nap in to make up for that loss of sleep at night, but it is rare.

DS: Has life outside been as you expected it to be?

EC: Pretty much, even more—I enjoy foods that I only dreamed about before, I can go places, buy things that were once prohibited. I have also met a lot of interesting people, many who are very hopeful for the future.

DS: In parting, is there anything else you would like to say?

EC: Yes, I have a tremendous faith that people of all backgrounds can come together and make changes in their community.

Looking for other articles featured in the South Star? Find this issue here.

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