If We Stand Tall it is Because We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

If We Stand Tall it is Because We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

By Robert Saleem Holbrook

Anyone who has met David Dawud Lee cannot walk away without being impressed by his height, broad shoulders, intellect and humbleness. The thing however that stood out to me when I first met him were his eyes. They told a story as if they had been here long and before. When Dawud spoke, he looked you directly in the eyes and you felt every word he said, whether you agreed with it or not. I remember the moment I met Dawud in A-Yard of SCI-Huntingdon in June of 2000. About a dozen of us were in a circle talking books, politics, history and how miserable it is to be at SCI-Huntingdon.

At the time, SCI-Huntingdon was one of the state’s two “breaking prisons”, the other being SCI-Greene and if you were a trouble maker, activist, revolutionary or jailhouse legal worker you were gonna wind up in one of those prisons. Throughout my incarceration, I bounced between the two of them multiple times. I remember so much about that day, because it was one of those days that changed my life. During the conversation, Frantz Fanon came up and I held court on Fanon’s writings, emphasizing the need for us to not overly simplify Fanon to the opening chapter of his book talking about violence and revolution. Instead, we should also delve into the decolonization of our minds that Fanon elaborated on in later chapters. Dawud nodded his head to the side and asked me where I came down from and I said “Dallas” (SCI-Dallas). Do you know “Ron.” Immediately, my antenna went up. “Yes, that’s my comrade, are you Dawud? Big Dave?” “Yeah,” he said and we immediately broke the circle and posted up on the side.

I have to go back for a minute and explain how we got to this point. I had been transferred to SCI-Huntingdon from SCI-Dallas. After three years in the Special Management Unit at SCI-Greene, I had been transferred to general population at SCI-Dallas but after a couple months in general population, SCI-Dallas unceremoniously sent me packing to SCI-Huntingdon. In my brief time at SCI-Dallas, I walked the yard with two amazing comrades: Ray X Johnson and Ronnie Forrest. They were members of a cultural organization. Also in the cultural organization were Richard Tut Carter and Reuben Jones. All of us were involved in what is commonly referred to today as “transformative justice” guided by the imprisoned revolutionary George Jackson’s words “we must transform the criminal mentality into a revolutionary mentality.” When I was on my way out of SCI-Dallas en route to SCI-Huntingdon, everyone told me to connect with Dawud aka “Big Dave” once I got down there.

From the moment we met, we were like kindred spirits, and I can admit Dawud was my Old Head, Elder, Mentor or whatever you want to call it. Not just because he was from North Philly and ten years older than me; there are plenty of older men in prison from North Philly who are nothing more than old fools. Dawud earned the title of Old Head or Mentor. Being in dialogue or conversation was always a learning experience with Dawud, because he not only would ask questions but he would also bring you to conclusions through the questions so that you were more on an epic quest as opposed to being taught.

Many people thought Dawud was Muslim because of his Muslim name and like many of us Dawud was at one time a Muslim. However, Dawud was immensely spiritual in the African sense of spirituality and tradition. I believe this helped him tremendously with his mentorship. In fact, if there is a trait that I learned the most from Dawud it was/is empathy and vulnerability.

Both Dawud and I were writers, and he had a head start on his writing so I learned a lot from his writing style. Specifically, being able to share or speak on your personal experience in an article. Prior to meeting Dawud, I was what you could call a revolutionary polemic. I did not believe that a revolutionary should refer to themselves, or for that matter individual people, in their writings. It was selfish in my narrow opinion at the time. My articles had to be about revolution: what must be done, how it must be done, and maybe, if I had enough time, I’d explain why.

So, you can imagine the first time Dawud shared an article he wrote about growing up in poverty in North Philly — it jolted the hell out of me. What is he doing? What the hell is this? Referring to himself in an article? What revolutionary does that? Let me read it again, and again, and again. I kept reading the article over and over because it was so damn powerful. I read it pacing the cell, on my bunk, and at my desk. I wanted to write like this, I needed to write like this! There was something in his article that mine lacked and that was agency, it was self determination. To insert yourself into a critique of the education system that fails Black children in this country, and then connect that failure to mass incarceration, the legacy of segregation, and capitalism was far more revolutionary than anything I had ever written. I said to myself, who does he think he is? He just inserted himself into history, while I’m writing about it. You have to be vulnerable to do that because it requires opening up and exposing a piece of yourself in an environment that tells you to do the opposite every day.

From that day on, my writing style changed. Not only did my writing change but also my understanding of the power of writing and, even more important, the power of application. We called it praxis. In that long, narrow, concrete yard at SCI-Huntingdon, Dawud and I laid out the plans for using our writings to build a movement in Pennsylvania. Our writings were going to be SOS’s to the world, lifelines to the community and people the prison system attempted to shut us off from. We would connect with them and build a movement that would be revolutionary and would represent the interests of prisoners. Specifically prisoners that wanted to take the difficult steps of ridding themselves of the predatory criminal mentality, what Dawud so generously called “the crab in the barrel mentality”.

Whenever Dawud and I were together, it was a conspiracy. We were planning something. If we weren’t planning something we were developing something. Or we were talking about books we read, our analysis of them and how we could apply it to our situation. We were always guided by George Jackson’s words “the principle task is to turn the theoretical into the practical.” All we thought about was freedom and how to get free. We collaborated on so many projects over the years. The first was a prison newsletter called Captive Voices that we sent out to activists and people on the inside. After that, we took over the Lifers Association at SCI-Huntingdon and used it as a vehicle to politically educate prisoners while also advocating for parole for lifers. We  invited speakers in from the outside to build community support for lifers.

In 2001, Dawud and I became Advisory Council members for the Human Rights Coalition and helped guide HRC through its formative years. Later, Dawud became a member of Decarcerate PA.

In 2003, I was transferred out of SCI-Huntingdon and would not see Dawud until ten years later when we both landed at SCI-Coal Township. I remember when word got to me that Dawud had landed in the prison. I had him called over to the prison library and we both had huge smiles on our faces and embraced like long separated brothers. We immediately got to work and, in the two years we were together, we accomplished some of our best organizing work – work whose legacy continues today. We were both founding members of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI). Dawud took the lead on creating “Dare to Care,” a mentoring program at SCI-Coal Township that has mentored hundreds of young prisoners. He also helped create Lifelines: Voices Against the Other Death Penalty on the outside with Emily Abendroth and Layne Mullet, a project which captures the stories and insights of people serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania.

I look back at our time at SCI-Huntingdon as our training ground and our time at SCI-Coal Township as the application of our training and learning. The political landscape today has been altered because of the formations that were created between 2012 and 2014 while we were at SCI-Coal Township. CADBI, Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project and Lifelines. Dawud was central to all of them.

2014 is also the last time Dawud and I were together. After organizing a week-long dining hall boycott at SCI-Coal Township with Dawud and another of our beloved departed comrades Big Hicks, I was transferred out of SCI-Coal Township along with Big Hicks. En route to the hole, and then bouncing between different prisons until the DOC returned me to SCI-Greene, I remember being relieved that Dawud was not swept up in the sweep.   

Another aspect of Dawud that stuck with me was his sense of empathy. He was such an incredible teacher of not just men, but also youth coming into the system. His passion was mentorship and teaching. I’ll be honest, I was envious of his ability to mentor so many youth and men. I couldn’t do it. I was able to connect to one or two people at most and devote my time with them. On the other hand, I watched Dawud hold court with a dozen younger prisoners at a time – deliberately giving space and time for each of them. It was truly like watching a sage or teacher and there are legions of people both inside and outside who can testify to that. Teaching and mentoring was when Dawud was at his best. He loved it; it wasn’t a bid or ego trip for him. Just listen to the audio recordings of Dawud–he sounds like a lecturer. No pause, no stumble, his words and consciousness just flow so smoothly. That is who he was.

What made Dawud such a potent mentor was that people trusted him because he practiced what he preached. Dawud was one of the first brothers that was completely disinterested in jail house or prison politics and gossip. He shunned it like a virus. I remember he once referred to it as flies competing to be on the top of a pile a shit. If you weren’t talking about freedom in a principled and unified way, he kept it moving. It was a lesson that to this day I follow.

Another side of Dawud that a lot of people may not know about is that he was deeply proud to be African. He connected with the continent of our ancestors, its spirituality, and tradition. He did so not in a reactionary cultural sense, but in a revolutionary and human sense of the positivity of many aspects of African culture and tradition. It truly guided his life.

Dawud was also a voracious reader, who would read a wide range of subjects. For anyone who knows Dawud, his story of teaching himself to read after he was sentenced to death by incarceration is remarkable. After the prosecutor remarked that he had less than a fourth grade education and was incapable of being anything other than a criminal, Dawud left that courtroom with a determination to prove to the state that this would not be his defining epitaph.

It is also not surprising that Dawud, like myself and many other politicized prisoners, was helped along in the educational process by former political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz when Dawud was in the hole at SCI-Dallas. It was in the hole that Dawud’s re-education began. The first book that Dawud attempted to read was African Origin of Civilization and he jokes how it took him a dictionary, two legal pads of notes and a year to finish it, but he did. That is Dawud, the first book he reads is an anthropological study of African civilization written by one of the most preeminent scholars in the world.

Dawud hated capitalism and especially Black Capitalism. Many of his articles crush proponents of the two. I believe his hatred for Black Capitalism was because he saw in it the predatory traits and similarities to the drug game and criminal mentality that devastated the neighborhood he grew up in. Dawud’s criticism of Black Capitalism and its proponents was biting, mocking and incisive. Two of his favorite books were How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. They were mandatory reading to Dawud.

Another aspect of Dawud was that he was a beautiful physical specimen. Tall, handsome and strong as an ox. On the weight pit, he was known as Big Dave. He introduced me to power deadlift and squats because these concentrated on your core, where your power rests. He taught me how to increase my deadlift and squat quickly by doing supersets with heavy squats followed by heavy deadlifts. Even while working out, Dawud was a teacher.

One of the things I will miss most about Dawud is his sense of humor and how, when something really strikes him as funny, his big belly laugh is followed by a couple claps of his hands. I cannot tell you how many times we had Dawud rolling in A-Yard at SCI-Huntingdon. A moment that still has me in tears is when we were in A-Yard at SCI Huntingdon with one of our comrades Mandelik. Mandelik said something hilarious, as he was always prone to do, and Dawud let out a huge laugh and started running but tripped and stumbled across the yard, still laughing. He didn’t fall but his tall, big, lanky body struggling for balance had us all in tears. It is those moments with Dawud that I will cherish forever and miss.

I also remember when Dawud shared with me that he had the disease that would, along with poor medical attention and the Board of Pardons denying him release, take his life. Sarcoidosis is a rare lung disease that causes progressive damage to the lungs if not treated properly. Every now and then Dawud would show signs of the disease, a persistent dry cough. Dawud knew he was getting subpar treatment and would read everything he could on the disease. He also changed his diet to eliminate foods he believed aggravated the disease. The really frustrating thing is we all knew freedom was the treatment for his disease.

The prison health care system did less than the bare minimum to treat Dawud. Their remedy was to provide him steroids over the years which caused short term comfort but long term damage to his lungs. The COVID lockdown made things much worse and that is when Dawud’s health took a drastic turn. Still, I never believed he would die from it or rather that he wouldn’t defeat it. His will was indomitable. But he was human in the end. What I do know is that while Dawud may have succumbed to the disease, he was never defeated. Up until the end he was fighting and on our last call we were discussing what he would do when he was free.

When Dawud was denied for commutation in 2022, I was crushed. Despite knowing that commutation is a flawed process akin to a lottery, I willed myself to believe that Dawud was going to come home. Those hopes were shattered when his commutation was denied 3-2. Leading the opposition to Dawud’s release was Board member Williams, whose main problem with Dawud was that Dawud spoke with dignity, was unbowed and had already put himself and his soul through the ringer of self evaluation so Williams’ provocations did not faze or unsettle Dawud.

When you look at what Dawud contributed to building in PA from his prison cell only then will people understand how much he accomplished from behind the walls of a prison cell. HRC, Decarcerate PA, ALC, CADBI, Amistad Law Project, etc. Dawud was intimately involved in the creation of all these organizations and was a guide to them all. Despite that, he was selfless. He never promoted himself or his individual freedom. Even when ALC and Amistad took on his case, he never acted as if his case was special or demanded special treatment. When things were not moving at a fast enough pace, he would also say “I understand.” He had no sense of entitlement.

A comrade of Dawud’s wrote that in an alternate reality Dawud would have been home years ago mentoring youth and living a great life as a community and movement elder. I will take it further, in an alternate reality, Dawud would have been the Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral of our era. He would have been the teacher to millions of dispossessed and marginalized peoples around the world. I will always remember and see him as a giant, whose shoulders I and many others stand on to map out the horizon of a New World.

As he is an ancestor now, I will speak to him in the wind and in my heart.

About the author

Robert Saleem Holbrook (he/him) is the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a law project dedicated to ending race and class based discrimination in the criminal justice system and all forms of state violence. Prior to being named Executive Director of ALC he was its Director of Community Organizing responsible for expanding ALC into Philadelphia. He also led ALC’s campaigns against Death By Incarceration (Life Without Parole), Solitary Confinement and State Violence. He has worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights to end Death By Incarceration sentences in the United States and the National Unlock The Box Campaign to End Solitary Confinement. He is a co-founder of the Human Rights Coalition, an organization with chapters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that is composed of family members of prisoners. HRC advocates on behalf of the civil and human rights of prisoners. He is also a co-founder of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania, an advocacy group fighting to end Life without Parole Sentences. He sits on the advisory boards of the Amistad Law Project and Youth Arts and Empowerment Project. While incarcerated, Saleem wrote extensively on prison abuse, social injustice, state violence and juveniles charged and sentenced as adults. His writings were featured in Truthout, The Appeal, San Francisco Bay View, and Solitary Watch. He was released from prison in 2018 after spending over two decades incarcerated for an offense he was convicted of as a child offender.