By Rhyus Goldman PZ ’26
“What happened to Keith? Keith LaMar is a death row prisoner who was wrongfully convicted in the state of Ohio. On January 13th, 2027, the state intends to execute him, even though he has maintained his innocence for nearly three decades, all while being held in indefinite solitary confinement,” reads LaMar’s website.
On October 7, 2023, the Pomona Student Union and Prison Abolition Collective presented “Freedom First,” a Jazz Benefit Concert for Keith LaMar. It featured words from LaMar, calling in from death row, with accompaniment from a live band at Pomona College.
Keith LaMar’s freedom is necessary here and now. The only way that personal beliefs and reality will align as necessary for LaMar’s freedom is by working towards growth in the current moment that can lead to immediate positive change. Our current place and time provides us with the material and blatant reality to adhere to what the present moment needs.
Here at Pitzer College, the student body must acknowledge its contribution toward the destructive system of higher academia and its role in supporting the prison industrial complex, and its hypocrisy between the words and actions of students. Every moment where an individual supports an institution like Pitzer is a direct moment of action encouraging the system of damnation that is causing LaMar’s life circumstances. One should be using the resources at the disposal from the institution to advantage realty. Whether or not students are passive, intentional, or unaware of the true implications of their actions, our institution will continue to support the privatized prison industrial system. LaMar will continue to suffer the consequences of our destructive actions, or often, our inaction. LaMar’s concert was a call for self awareness and introspection to see that our attempts at help are futile, and often continue the spiraling cycle of destruction. The help we offer actively upholds higher academia and therefore the privatized prison industrial system. Can anyone avoid supporting a system of oppression when operating within a country funded by and founded on stolen labor and genocide? The question can only be answered by individuals making their existence and they can not be done in a legal or political context that continues to support the United States of America.
LaMar suggests that through active engagement outside of the system this is possible, but so long as it continues to exist, nothing will change. His website explains, “in the aftermath of the 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising, the State of Ohio was under public pressure to clean up a multi-million dollar mess, one that included the death of a prison guard and multiple prisoners. After State investigators trampled the crime scene and contaminated any and all potential evidence, they paid jailhouse informants to create a false narrative that implicated Keith, even though he wasn’t affiliated with any of the groups involved in the riot. To bolster their claim, the State withheld evidence that would have proven his innocence (including the confession of an actual perpetrator who admitted to murdering one of Keith’s alleged victims). His trial was staged in a remote Ohio community known to be highly racist. Any Black prospective jurors were promptly dismissed by the Prosecution, leaving Keith’s fate in the hands of an all-White jury, who swiftly sentenced him to death.”
What can be done?
In an interview with Elsabeth Franklin, a close friend of Keith LaMar and a participant in his campaign, she explained how she hopes others would go about learning about LaMar’s life and needs. First, she advises people to read LaMar’s book, Condemned, before they take action. Once one has a whole and truthful perspective each person should discuss the book and pinpoint their own identity and positionality within it, recognizing how that impacts the content that they took away from it.
Franklin said, “conversations of positionality and intersectionality are important to have to examine the systems of oppressions that are that we have constructed. We are directly in an institution. How do we feed into it and how do we contribute to it?” These destructive systems in the present are rooted in historical lies, all bolstered by the institutional bubble around us that allows us to believe that our core values of “Social Justice” are being acted upon through complacency, just by being here. Franklin then would transition the conversation towards considering LaMar’s identity in a country that structurally fails Black men and then profits from their incarceration, inevitably condemning LaMar to the same fate.
Franklin emphasized, “we all are contributing to the system that allows him to be in the situation he is in.” She pinpointed reality by asking, “What does it mean to be a consequence of that?”
The concert hall at Pomona College was completely packed as the live band began to play; the drummer clashed his symbols, the saxophone started to cry, and the bass was booming. The piano began exploring a melodic song, and LaMar’s voice came over the speaker from his cell in Ohio, “tell the children the truth,” from the song “Tell ‘Em the Truth.” The song emphasized the significance of the moment and a necessary call to action. The unique compassion shared for the art, cause, and most importantly, for LaMar, was felt throughout the venue.
“Finding yourself” was a crucial motif in the performance and discussion. Reiterating Franklin’s earlier point, further exploration and engagement towards LaMar’s cause was encouraged to be sought out through self exploration and analysis. It is not enough to understand, know, and feel the present moment of realities like LaMar’s. It is crucial to notice, and be proactive in acting upon your position in the present to propel the world you hope to see in the future. The present is the most meaningful and productive reality to be in, it is the only one that can and must be used for positive change. Examining the factors of one’s individual situation is imperative to using it for action towards achieving justice and eliminating injustice.
The “vibe” is something that LaMar’s campaign manager Amy Gordiejew brought into later conversation during the Q&A after the performance. Franklin mentions Gordiejew’s involvement and passion for LaMar and his fight, saying “she does everything for Keith that he can’t because of his position” Upon being asked about engagement with LaMar’s cause, Gordiejew recommended reading his book, Condemned, because it reveals deeply who he is as a person. The two regarded the purpose of reading his book to reveal clarity and understanding that one can empathize with the fact that this story is not rare, recognize that these are people’s lives, and understand that LaMar’s experience is unfortunately not uncommon. They also recommended to follow him on Instagram @JusticeForKeithLaMar, and to reach out to him. In this way one could subsequently meet with more people of similar compassion and interest.
LaMar then gave the following sentiments and wisdom to queries from the audience about how to engage with justice. He first recommended involving the people that you are trying to help. When someone wondered what in particular a student’s place is, LaMar responded, “what do you feel like as a student?” He made it clear that actions speak louder than words — you must inform yourself, and you must actualize yourself. Figure out how you want to do it, and not how you have been taught to He then stated that he did not want his situation to be seen in a way that was to get him off death row alone, but rather to reevaluate our society. He encouraged the audience to keep learning and keep trying to involve themselves, and to do so by thinking outside the box until there really is no box. As LaMar’s time on the phone was unwinding and the event came to a close, LaMar left this point to the young people in the audience: “How acceptable to bullshit are you? Contribute to saving this world. Add more, it’s a big cake.”
The gruesome and relevant fact of the matter is that LaMar’s words and ideas are lasting and impactful, yet they remind us he is only able to give them to the world for a set period of time due to his impending death on January 13th, 2027. Elsabeth Franklin made this clear when discussing what we could do now with the information of the impending death date, saying, “what we want is for him to be free, and I couldn’t ask one person to allow that we are a consequence of the position that we are in.”
Two other individuals made the performance particularly spectacular. LaMar’s best friend, Ken Wright, provides an intimate role and side of both LaMar’s life and the impact that he has on others. Pianist and teacher Albert Marquès is able to help put power in LaMar’s words through music. Both outlets, whether a meaningful lifelong emotional connection or art, are significant in expressing feelings of social, emotional, and beautiful expression that can only be conveyed through this manner. At the intersections of these two relationships is action through self-expression, thus making self-expression essential to the movement.
Through his own expression, LaMar relays his own life’s journey and knowledge in a proactive, self self-engaged manner, and is able to show that LaMar’s story is not unique, it has happened to him and is happening to many people now. LaMar’s own experience is so impactful because he continuously teaches his message, do what you think is right to you and the world. By consuming, learning, and acting intentionally against structural oppression, finding one’s own expression through exposing the falsities and fuckery within these systems is necessary now. By doing nothing, one is actively “contributing to the system that allows him to be in the situation he is in.” To spotlight the truth, we must remind ourselves of Franklin’s question: “what does it mean to be a consequence of that?”
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