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Children of the Revolutionary 

Former black revolutionary Watani Stiner turned himself in to San Quentin so his children could come to America. Was it worth it?

Wednesday, Aug 22 2007
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Because he was 18 at the time of the shooting, Hawkins was sent to detention at the California Youth Authority, where he wound up spending seven years. Though neither man pulled the trigger that killed Huggins and Carter, Watani and George were sentenced to seven years to life.

The UCLA shootout caused a media frenzy, and the Stiner brothers arrived in prison as celebrities of a sort. When Truman Capote came to San Quentin in 1973, looking to do a story on prison life, it was Watani he spoke with.

“He was definitely a strange character,” says Watani of Capote. “That voice — and the questions he asked.”

click to flip through (5) The extended Stiner clan, from left: Larry Jr. and his wife, Diane, with their daughter Khyra, 3, and Larry’s half-siblings Tamani, 16; Natisha, 19; Lige, 15; and Mtume, 14. Not pictured: Kishana, 23; Latanya, 21; and Larry’s daughter Jasmine, 19. (Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)
  • The extended Stiner clan, from left: Larry Jr. and his wife, Diane, with their daughter Khyra, 3, and Larry’s half-siblings Tamani, 16; Natisha, 19; Lige, 15; and Mtume, 14. Not pictured: Kishana, 23; Latanya, 21; and Larry’s daughter Jasmine, 19. (Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)
 

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Watani remembers that Capote asked him if he “liked being in prison.” “I just shook my head and told him that was a pretty silly question. He got kind of flustered.”

But increased attention inside a place like San Quentin wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The same clashes between youth and the establishment that took place on the outside were magnified tenfold on the inside — often with deadly results. “It was like the Wild West back then,” one longtime guard says of San Quentin in the ’70s. For Watani, the attention from the Capote interview would come back to haunt him.

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.

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