By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Watani suggested to Capote that one of the guards had conspired to kill prisoners. After the interview concluded, a sympathetic guard approached Watani. “ ‘Saying those types of things can get you killed,’ he told me.” Watani soon came to believe him.
Shortly afterward, two Chicano inmates confronted Watani in the yard — and one came at him with a knife. When another prisoner jumped in to protect Watani, the man was stabbed to death. Guards intervened before the attackers could finish the job with Watani.
“I had no problems with these guys,” says Watani of his attackers. “To me, it was an obvious case of guard-prisoner collusion. Someone wanted me dead.”
Though the laws of the time made it likely he would have been paroled in only a few years, Watani suspected he wouldn’t make it that long inside San Quentin. He and George needed to escape. It would force him to leave behind his wife, Jackie, and their two sons — Larry Jr. and Lionel — but Watani felt he had no choice. The year was 1974.
Because both Watani and George had received no disciplinary demerits during their five years in prison, they were eligible for an overnight visit at a minimum-security facility on the prison grounds. When a visit was arranged with their parents, the brothers figured it would be the perfect pretext to launch an escape. After witnessing a series of other near-fatal incidents involving the brothers, the same sympathetic guard agreed that Watani and George were marked for death and helped them coordinate their plans.
After their escape, the brothers laid low in Oakland until arrangements were made to get them out of the country. With the assistance of a man named Lige, who ran an underground network of black revolutionary ex-prisoners, the brothers traveled to Memphis in the back of a U-Haul van. For the next several weeks, they disguised themselves as itinerant preachers and made their way to Miami, where they eventually secured a flight to Guyana.
At the time, Guyana was a major epicenter for the pan-African black-power movement, and Watani and his brother immediately became immersed in the revolutionary dialogue. They resumed contact with Claude Hubert, the shooter in the UCLA killings. But though satisfying politically, life in Guyana wasn’t easy.
“Next to Haiti, Guyana was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” says Watani.
As the economic situation worsened, the government cracked down on a growing civil unrest. Students rallied in the streets and were beaten for their trouble. Unable to stay silent, once again, the outspoken revolutionary in Watani nearly got him killed. After he was caught by the Guyanese government attending a student protest, one government official unceremoniously told him, “The U.S. government would not even claim your corpse if it should mysteriously wash up on our shores.”
Watani got the message — it was time to move on. In 1980, he fled to neighboring Suriname, a former Dutch colony and one of the few places a black American could travel freely without having too many questions asked. As it happened, Suriname too was in the midst of social unrest after the democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup. Nonetheless, Watani managed to survive, making money buying coffee and sugar and selling it across the border in materially destitute Guyana. Watani’s work forced him to regularly frequent the Surinamese markets for cheap goods, and it was there that he found new purpose. Her name was Nisha.
“She was beautiful and charming,” remembers Watani fondly. “And what a businesswoman! She was incredibly sharp with numbers.”
Though he spoke no Dutch and she spoke little English, they fell in love and decided to raise a family together. Nisha already had a 4-year-old boy, Raoul, whom Watani agreed to adopt, and over the next decade, the couple had six children of their own together — Kishana, Latanya, Natisha, Tamania, Lige and Mtume.
But life in Suriname was hard, and Watani struggled to feed his family. “I grew cassavas — traded in the markets. Nisha and I managed to scrape by, but just barely.”
As the political situation in Suriname deteriorated into borderline civil war, national instability became more than just an existential dilemma and an economic burden. Soldiers raided the Stiners’ house on more than one occasion, driving them away in the middle of the night and seizing their property. Outbreaks of malaria and tuberculosis ravaged the country, and the inept medical system couldn’t deal with the problem. By November of 1993, Watani and his family were living in the bush in a cinder-block home with no electricity or running water. “It was terrifying to be completely powerless to protect my children and provide for them.”
For Watani, it was all too familiar. “I had seen firsthand how fast the situation deteriorated in Guyana. I saw children selling cigarettes in the street just to keep from starving to death. I didn’t want my kids to end up suffering the same fate.”
But what could he do? He was an outlaw — there were no other countries he could safely travel to, and staying in Suriname wasn’t an option. Finally, Watani realized there was only one solution — he would sacrifice his freedom for the safety of his family.