Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email



Prison Poet and Thinker Shaka N'Zinga is Paying for the Violent Crimes of Street Thug Arthur Wiggins. But You Can't Let Out One Without Letting Out the Other.

Shaka N'Zinga, 2003: Today he is known to readers and activists as an author, intellectual, and afrocentric anarchist radical.
Arthur Wiggins, 1988: When he was arrested for rape and murder at 16, he was violent, mentally ill, and functionally illiterate.
His new book has at the very least announced¨and at the very most, created¨Shaka N'Zinga. It is as if the word made the flesh.
"I may not remember much from those three days, but I know I didn't rape shit and I didn't kill shit."

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 7/9/2003

By the time she hung up the phone that night, Jean Wantland had only a few minutes to live, and the worst moments of her life were yet in front of her. It was late on June 30, 1988, and she was getting ready for bed in the basement apartment she kept in the house of her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Orwin, on Luzerne Avenue in Patterson Park. Just after she hung the telephone receiver back in its cradle, she happened to turn her back to the door that led upstairs, and then stood still for an instant. She was white and 18 years old. She was wearing a bra and boxer shorts. Except for the men who repeatedly raped her and then strangled her to death, no one would see Jean Wantland again until three months later, when construction workers found her putrefied body rolled up in a rug that had been dumped under a porch a few blocks away on Fairmount Avenue.

The particulars of what happened that night are hard to picture, even with a callused mind, but those details have come under new scrutiny in recent months. The only thing that is certain, however, is that there were four young men in the house when Wantland was on the phone: 21-year-old Arnold Orwin and 13-year-old Jeff Saffell, both white; Jorge Delvalle, a Hispanic 17-year-old; and Arthur Wiggins, an African-American youth just a few days shy of his 16th birthday. Wiggins would later say that they were coming off a three-day bender of drinking and drugs. Each of the young men--with the notable exception of Wiggins--would attest that all four of them were in the house until Jean Wantland was dead.

Guilt, accountability, and the drive for self-preservation tend to run at cross purposes, which perhaps explains why the accounts these men gave to police in September 1988 differ in many important respects. In their statements, for instance, Wiggins and Delvalle both claimed that it was Orwin who incited his friends to go downstairs and attack the young tenant; Orwin and Saffell, however, blamed Delvalle. Orwin also fingered Delvalle as having strangled the girl on his own; but Delvalle and Saffell both describe her as having been garroted by all the men in turn, each having held an end of the twisted bed sheet that had been wrapped around her neck, and heaving it back and forth in the way that lumberjacks once used whipsaws to cut down old trees.

In the end, the only specifics agreed upon by all three men with whom Arthur Wiggins kept company that night were: 1) at some point a sofa pillow was used to silence Jean Wantland as she screamed; 2) Jorge Delvalle and one of the other men carried the body out of the house; and 3) as the men came down the stairs, Arthur Wiggins was the first to either subdue or rape Jean Wantland.

Exactly a decade and a half after the events that sent him into the Maryland prison system, however, Arthur Wiggins' guilt is still very much a matter of debate. Since his late teens, Wiggins has been trying to assemble a legal case to overturn his 40-year sentence, based on claims ranging from inadequate legal counsel to a history of mental illness to an assertion, made somewhat sporadically, that he was not in the house when Jean Wantland was raped and killed. So far, Wiggins has not found a court that will listen to his claims. His only remaining recourse is the court of public opinion.

Today, Arthur Wiggins is known to thousands as Shaka N'Zinga, a writer, intellectual, and Afrocentric anarchist radical. And while this transformation has been more than a decade in the making, it only seems to have reached completion this spring. You could almost pinpoint the day. While Baltimore's small, strident anarchist circles have known N'Zinga for years, his public profile didn't appear in full view until this past March, when New York-based Soft Skull Press released his breathtakingly ambitious book, A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live. It is all at once the story of his desperate, dead-stoned days on the streets of Baltimore, an invective against the "insane design" of the white man, a tirade about the failings of capitalism, and, ultimately, a meditation on the lingering hopefulness of human nature. Since its release, the book's initial print run of 5,300 copies has almost sold out. It has drawn ink out of media ranging from campus newspapers to Publishers Weekly. And at least a dozen activist groups from Berkeley to Stockholm now list N'Zinga on their online rolls of celebrated causes, citing him variously as "a political prisoner," "a prisoner of war," and a scapegoat "framed for a crime he didn't really commit." The book has at the very least announced--and, at the very most, created--Shaka N'Zinga. It is as if the word made the flesh.

But nearly everything about A Disjointed Search and the man who made it seems to suffer from some kind of unhealable schism, or terminal contradiction. The book is both airy philosophy and black-fisted manifesto; it's poetry and prose, autobiography and fiction, and, by turns, despairingly hackneyed and startlingly beautiful. N'Zinga himself, a man who drops Hegel quotes and Tupac lyrics in the same sitting, is no less at odds. He's voracious in cultivating publicity, but he refuses to call himself a political prisoner. He avers hatred for what he calls "the blue-eyed devil" of white America, but he owes his success to crusading white supporters--and he is engaged to, and has had a child with, a white Baltimore woman. But above all, as his popularity continues to corkscrew upward, it draws closer and closer to the crux on which everything else depends: In order for Shaka N'Zinga to have a future, he must first settle the issue of what Arthur Wiggins did in the past.

If you don't want your chest ripped open by a rifle bullet or your flesh cut into flaps of pink ribbon, the only way in or out of the Maryland House of Corrections at Jessup is through visitors' processing. Friends and loved ones of inmates get milled for visitation here, a cinder-block building about a hundred yards from the brick jailhouse. The House of Corrections itself is surrounded by watchtowers, three rows of 20-foot-high chain-link fence, and countless concertinas of razor wire. But despite this, as you approach, the prison grounds appear quiet and peaceful.

Outside the fence, pairs of Canadian geese patrol their young to and from a small pond by the side of the road. Herons nest nearby, and it's not uncommon to see them swooping over the gray parking lot. Every now and then, high-pitched warbles carry out over the compound, sounding moony and wee. They seem like bird calls at first, but when you stop and look up to the jailhouse they grow thicker, and you realize it's the whistles of inmates trilling at you from behind the grated windows.

Shaka N'Zinga has lived here since 1994, when his age, education, and mental health all reached levels that qualified him to join the adult general population. Today, he looks young and hale. There are the scraggly, boyish-looking beginnings of a beard and mustache framing his large mouth, and tight black dreadlocks hang down to the small of his back. He rises to no more than 6 feet, but he's wiry; the muscles in his forearms slide like knotted rags beneath his skin. When he turned 31 on July 5, he could claim that more than half his life had been spent in prison. And, as he sits across from you at the cafeteria-like table in the visitation hall, he's the first to acknowledge that he is a product of this system in more ways than one.

"I learned to write when I learned I had a voice," he says. "When I learned to suffer."

In neither respect is he speaking entirely figuratively. Like many prison authors before him, N'Zinga taught himself to read and write behind bars, and, from the beginning, language has served as a kind of therapy. In his case, the self-ministrations began almost immediately. Soon after he was interned at 16 into the Roxbury Correctional Institution, a medium security detention facility in Hagerstown, he was raped and tried to kill himself. Authorities whisked him into the isolated surveillance of a one-month suicide watch. There was nothing to do, he says, but try to read and try not to think.

"I remember getting a letter from my mother," he says. "I could make sense of it, but when I sat down to write her back, I just couldn't. I could make an 'A,' I could write an 'M.' But I was functionally illiterate."

His minders slipped magazines under the door to his monitored cell. He pored over them, chasing down the forms of words and the rules of syntax. After the 30th day of suicide watch, he was sent back into general population and he stole a dictionary from the library, which he used as a kind of map legend for decoding what books he could get his hands on. Then in the early 1990s he was relocated to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, a medium-security prison with education programming, and N'Zinga earned his GED. From there, his reading list expanded, along with his sensibility.

"That's when I developed my own curriculum," he says, "for me, to address my situation and the things that spoke to me."

The real education of Shaka N'Zinga didn't fully take shape, however, until he was contacted by Claustrophobia, the Baltimore-based anarchist collective. Owing to the belief, as one local anarchist put it, that "prison is probably the most offensive possible example of the state's involvement in people's lives," anarchists tend to be on the advance guard of prison-reform issues. And as a result, Claustrophobia keeps in regular contact with Jessup inmates, which is how one of its members discovered N'Zinga's writing.

"I was working on distributing books and pamphlets for prisoners and corresponding with them, trying to put out some of their writing," says the member, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Nathaniel. "Shaka was probably one of the more serious writers who came across."

Nathaniel describes Shaka's early work as simplistic, even idealistic, but he says it held a hard germ inside. "He was writing a lot of political critiques of the prison system, that's mostly what he put out," he says. "Later, poetry was a way for him to reach a broader audience, so then we did that."

In 1995 N'Zinga's poems began running in the Claustrophobia newsletter, and two years later the group was issuing pamphlets of N'Zinga's prose and verse. These early works--like his dense prose-poem "Anarchist Rain," detailing his reflections in the exercise yard during a passing storm--tend to shift between purple prose and shrill rhetoric, but they also bear the echoes of what would become N'Zinga's sawed-off lyricism.

"Those of us captives in chains aren't supposed to be able to have any sort of enjoyment outside the control over our overseers," he wrote. "This consideration brought a smile to my rain soothed face; just the thought of finding in such a simple human practice a way to rebel against their sadism made my walk in that gentle rain that much more pleasant. . . . During this walk, I drifted of[f] into some sort of revolutionary day dream of how things should be."

Though N'Zinga would later claim that his politicization began as soon as he was imprisoned, it was this time, in the mid-'90s, that informed his view of the world. Influenced by anti-authoritarian activism and spurred by his move into the hard-core population of the Maryland House of Corrections, he began reading ravenously and ambitiously, a steady diet of philosophy, racial politics, postcolonial thought, and revolutionary manifestos.

"I read [Franz] Fanon, Sun Tzu, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, [Albert] Camus," N'Zinga recalls. But his focus riveted on the dialogue between power and race, a colloquy that has fueled nearly every well-known work of prison writing, from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. With the tweedy insight of a tutor, Nathaniel argues that N'Zinga's written life has been a search for his place in this radical spectrum.

"There's a trend that's really big, especially in prisons, to try to synthesize some of the analysis of the black nationalist movement--how racism functions, how racism holds white society together--with a more individual understanding," Nathaniel notes. "I think that Shaka has been really involved in that kind of synthesis. There are a number of political prisoners from the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, who have come to identify themselves as anarchists, have gone through that similar synthesis. That's kind of where I see Shaka."

Until 1999, N'Zinga's development as a writer was a vicious struggle, a desperate grapple to understand his fate, his place, and the forces he believed were conspiring against him. In A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live, he would finally bring those ideas to heel. But the state would bring him to heel first.

In order to meet Shaka N'Zinga face-to-face, you have to navigate the byzantine procedures and christiania turns that make up the Maryland House of Corrections.

Just inside the visitors' entrance, giant white signs issue terse orders. One lists articles of clothing deemed too revealing. Another entreats: respect our community and yourself--don't bring in drugs.

After submitting your inmate's name and your driver's license to an officer behind a Plexiglas partition, you must pull your pockets inside-out and walk through a metal detector. On the other side, a springer spaniel named Briar sniffs you as you sit on a bench with your hands on your knees, his eyes expectant as he snuffles at your crotch, ankles, and ass, as if hoping to find a chunk of ham in your pocket.

From here, you pass through a white waiting room, then through a hatch of iron bars and Plexiglas that slides open when the officer behind it sees you. From his metal desk, he takes your name and signature and fastens a yellow plastic bracelet around your left wrist, the kind inpatients are given in emergency rooms. Then he stamps your left hand with the date in invisible ink.

On his signal, another iron hatch behind you opens onto an outdoor path that leads to the jailhouse. Once inside, an officer waves a gray plastic wand along the outline of your body, and you are told to sit until your inmate is ready. On this particular day, four black women sit in molded plastic chairs and stare at the television on the wall while they wait. On the screen, a young bald white man in a black robe sits behind a podium and is yelling about something. The corner of the screen says "Texas Justice." "If you're more guilty than he is guilty," he's saying to one of the two black men standing before him, "then you lose." He hammers his gavel and rises to leave.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services takes great pride in its current attention to security at the House of Corrections, and this redoubled effort is in large part responsible for A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live.

"I wrote most of the book in six months, from '99 to 2000," N'Zinga says, "while they were raiding this place.

"And I wasn't lucid when I wrote it," he adds. Expressionless, he pinches his thumb to his forefinger and raises an imaginary spliff to his lips. "Pot. Alcohol. Very bad time."

That time was a benchmark for the Maryland House of Corrections, a crackdown on the convicts so strict--and so successful--that the state today offers publicity materials that crow its victory over what it describes as a prison gone amok. It was known as Operation 99.

In February 1999, the prison's new wardens introduced themselves to the inmates by launching a plan to destroy the political structure of the prison population. "The primary purpose of the exercise," prison literature explains, "was to remove those inmates who were exerting too much influence within the facility and were involving themselves in criminal activity."

Those inmates, N'Zinga explains, 19 in all, were the kingpins of most of the prison's black markets--namely drugs and prostitution--and, as a result, they also served as the centers of the House of Corrections' social gravity. Around those few figures, he says, all of the prisoners' political sentiment had pooled.

"They just took them away," he recalls. "It broke our spirit. That's what they wanted."

Almost immediately, the drugs, alcohol, and sexual favors that had apparently been in surfeit on the prison floor had drained to a trickle. More importantly, N'Zinga says, the politics of the cell blocks abruptly became rudderless, in a maneuver that strikes him as familiar.

"Say I own a bunch of slaves," he says. "You're the lead slave. You're the one who stands up to me and tells me how things should be, and all the slaves look up to you. Then I kill you. Suddenly, the slaves have no leader, no core. There's no one who can take your place. And no one wants to."

It's an unfair comparison. The gang leaders were not killed in Operation 99 but relocated to other jails. The effect, however, was the same, N'Zinga says, and in a way his cynicism seems healthy. Part of the reason for Operation 99, the Division of Corrections acknowledges, was to "prepare" the Maryland House of Corrections to receive $860,000 in federal grants, something of a good-faith gesture to Uncle Sam that his money would be well-spent.

With access to the outside world cut off, N'Zinga spent the raid in his cell, dosing himself with the last of the drugs he could get and spending long hours writing. Except for two pieces, A Disjointed Search was written entirely during this time.

And certainly, in its 138 pages, it bears all the marks of seclusion, despair, and rage. It opens with philippics about "oppression and the blue-eyed devil;" it thickens in the middle with gritty memories of N'Zinga's violent, medicated, self-hating youth; and it finally funnels out into a broad, academic discussion of what he calls "the New Afrikan," an Afrocentric worldview based on self-awareness, self-determination, and universal love. In places, these ideas seem to issue forth faster than the page can catch them. The poetry comes rapid-fire. The prose spills out in lung-emptying sentences six lines long. And while stream-of-consciousness writing tends to come off like a self-pitying howl, N'Zinga usually ends up on the right side of self-discipline.

Usually. N'Zinga's disgust with the status quo is better conceived than some of his doggerel--like the opening poem, in which "the white plague" is depicted as a hideous bitch-whore who sucks off a black man in a porn-store bathroom--would lead you to believe. The same goes for his habit of calling this country "Amerikkka," which as political digs go is as easy as they come. But if N'Zinga sometimes falls victim to his desire to offend, he also often succeeds without trying.

By no later than page 8, he's rallying the troops for a battle royale against "the parasitic folk with gray skin," in his brain-draining prose, "coming down the dawn of times which call for total revolution, preparing himself for the war of all times." On pages 93 and 94: "I have come to the realization that the european male . . . will not change [his] dehumanizing white supremacist view of all life . . . history shows him to be the only creature capable of creating the world we now must struggle to dismantle . . . he is unfit to be in any position of control."

N'Zinga, of course, can't claim a unique purchase on any of these ideas. Black nationalism, like stream-of-consciousness writing, came at least a generation before him. What he brings to these conceits, though, is an authentic style, an intuitive voice shared only with the best self-taught writers.

A drug-corner scene from the Baltimore of his youth, for one, speaks with an uncommon hardpan desperation: "With unmarked pig cars passing by, the junkies trying to cop from me though they were short a dollar or two, and my homies not paying me no mind, I stood on that corner, under a streetlight that didn't provide light, in front of a mailbox that the mailman never dared check, thinking to myself that this wasteland had become the mating ground of the universe."

"Faces," likewise, is a welcome relief from the naive realism that self-trained writers usually can't part with. Instead, it is a paean to N'Zinga's fellow black inmates:

The sun-kissed faces--the first to be
of these dark men, brings
back the scents of the groves,
now buried underneath time, in
the pageless book of history,
of the Sahara, where the people,
great and small, woman and man,
gathered to discuss the business
of the coming harvest . . . Nubia

Whether because of style or politics, though, reviews of A Disjointed Search have been thin and mixed. A campus newspaper from SUNY-Binghamton proclaimed that N'Zinga writes with "all the freedom and joy that is the right of the autodidact." Alt-weekly Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., meanwhile, vouchsafed some praise for it as "a thoughtful and determined assault on the dominant culture," but dismissed N'Zinga's compassionate preachings as nothing more than attempts to curry favor with the parole board, "inspired wholly by his lust to regain his freedom." And Publishers Weekly, the most prominent publication so far to take note of the book, describes it variously as "wildly bad" and "strikingly beautiful" and, like almost everyone else who has written about it, finds N'Zinga's political imagery "deeply offensive." That last objection, at least, is one N'Zinga seems accustomed to already.

"I don't hate white people," he says in the visitation hall. "I hate the white-controlled system that promotes the ugly thinking that allows white people to treat blacks like niggers, and that lets blacks see themselves as niggers." He puts his long fingers to each of his temples. "I hate ugly up here."

"You want to know what ugly is?" He gestures casually to the guard booth at the end of the room, where a fat black woman with long nails sits behind a console rippled with switches. Through the Plexiglas window, you can see her mouth chumbling on a piece of gum and her head--carefully cured into a shiny black chignon--nodding silently to a visitor who stands before the hatch door.

"A beautiful woman with an ugly mind," N'Zinga says. "She's thinking ugly, because all she's thinking about is her paycheck. That's the only reason she's here. She doesn't see, like most people don't see, her place in things. Now, she's gotta have a paycheck, because everyone's got to take care of themselves. But it's the ugly thinking that keeps you from getting the whole picture of things."

The difference between an African-American--a phrase he never uses--and a New Afrikan is "political awareness, a sense of purpose in life, a real consciousness of their place," he says. He then begins scooping out a box-shaped volume of air in front of him repeatedly. "We occupy a place in the world, and we have to understand what that place is," he says. "I'm just trying to live in my own place."

As a writer, N'Zinga has surely gotten closer to finding that space, thanks to the painful transformation that was A Disjointed Search. His book belongs on the same shelf of radical reading as other works of prison literature, including Malcolm X's autobiography, Soul on Ice, George Jackson's Soledad Brother, and Jimmy Santiago Baca's prison-poetry manifesto Immigrants in Our Own Land. And N'Zinga is as mindful as any of his forebears. Yet despite his book's open-heartedness, the author is visibly uncomfortable talking about his literal forebears, his own family, his personal past.

It's a telling moment when, while discussing his role models, N'Zinga grabs a cuff of his blue denim prison-issue shirt and rolls up the right sleeve to show a tawny, tattooed arm. On the front his forearm, there's the grinning bald head of Tupac Shakur. Next to it, there's an eight-inch portrait of George Jackson, modeled after the famous photograph of the Black Panther bound in chains.

"They are real outlaws," N'Zinga says, looking at his arm with satisfaction. "And then there's my father."

He points to his left forearm, but he does not roll up the sleeve.

Every time you meet N'Zinga in person, it takes 15 or 20 minutes for him to adjust to the relative safety of the visitation hall. The transition is visible. Frequently he glances to his sides, sometimes turning to look behind him, and his eyes are always raking the room. In conversation, he is curt, aggressive, and suspicious. And even when he has settled in, you get the feeling that he is continually securing the perimeter. During these times, you learn to look for more subtle indications, especially in his face, and here his most eloquent feature is his forehead. With his dreadlocks pulling it smooth, it is broad and brown and it billboards most of his feelings before he can articulate them. It corrugates when he is curious, and it darkens when he is displeased. But when you ask about his childhood, his forehead goes blank and his face drains.

Even in his book, N'Zinga's earliest years are mentioned rarely, and even then only elliptically. Nearly the only revelation comes from his poem "Man Identified Man," in which he describes himself as having been "raped/ at the age of six, branded/ retarded at the age of nine." When talking about his life he prefers to stick to the terrain already staked out in the book, and in A Disjointed Search his life begins with his first act of violence. He calls it "the day when his innocence was lost forever."

No more than 10, he was living at House of Ruth in Northeast Baltimore, the shelter for abused women and their families, where his mother had moved to escape an abusive relationship. ("My father was incarcerated when I was an infant," N'Zinga notes. "Murder and kidnapping. He died in prison.") When a neighborhood boy groped his girlfriend, he bided his time until he had the chance to blindside him, tackling him and slamming his head against a wall. "Blood, screams, and tears came from his foe," N'Zinga writes of his young self, with an epic tone. "He felt proud of himself. He felt like all thug niggas must have felt after tasting their first drop of blood, after experiencing their first right of passage."

"That's what you did then," N'Zinga says today. "Shit, I'd seen it. Watched my mother get beat up by her man. So that was me being a man. I was learning that possessiveness. Mine. She's mine."

While his mother's own search for security kept the family moving from one neighborhood to the next, N'Zinga became less and less connected with the people around him, and with their rules. "I never spent more than three or four days at home," he recalls. "I was searching. I'd always been told that I was nothing, and I was surrounded by people who didn't know any better." Crime came close behind.

"There were gangs, but we didn't call them gangs," he says. "They were cliques." Bands of thieves, gunmen, drug peddlers, and heavies soldiered their own neighborhoods, N'Zinga recalls, and the division of labor was discrete. "There were drug guys who just sold drugs, and stickup guys who just did stickups. I was in with the thugs. We just beat the shit out of people."

Seeking fleeting flashes of power wherever he could find them, fueled by loneliness and anger, he seemed to have found his jagged niche: "We'd go downtown, and you could tell we were on the streets looking for reparations. I'd go home with whatever I could get, the thinking being they're privileged, I'm underprivileged, it's mine."

Thug life took him through all quarters of the city, but it was on Highland Run where he was hit with his first major arrest--caught carrying a knife on the way to a score-settling battle with a rival gang in Essex. He was off on his first six-month stint at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. juvenile "training school."

In hindsight, as well as in his book, N'Zinga accounts for this past as a welter of misery and terror, even when he was among supposed peers. "You know when I was a kid how I felt if I was in a room full of other black guys?" he says. "Anxiety. Total anxiety. Because we all thought as little of each other as we did of ourselves. So it would take nothing for one of them to want to kill me. Didn't matter what it was. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's drugs, whatever. But none of us was safe from each other, because we all had self-hate."

Again, N'Zinga is not the first African-American thinker to link crime, violence, and self-hatred. But there was always another component to N'Zinga's disgust with himself that could not be tracked back to race, politics, or mean streets. He rolls up his left sleeve just far enough to reveal small scars, three keloid triangles that remain from his first suicide attempt, when he slit his wrist at 14.

"I tried to hang myself, too, from one of those plastic plant hangers," he says. "Took out an extension cord, tied it around my neck. And the damn hanger broke off. Shit, I can't even kill myself right. That's what I thought at the time."

Mental illness is another subject that N'Zinga prefers to avoid. Usually, he gets a few words into a story about an attack or a phase of treatment, and then drops it, waving his hand in front of him as if swatting the topic away.

But indeed, there is a delicate quality to Shaka N'Zinga--the nearly naked bearing of A Disjointed Search is testament enough to that. And it's the alloy of this poignant sensitivity with his unyielding political brio that has brought him into another one of his personal life's more curious turns, his engagement to a young, white Baltimore woman.

Like Nathaniel, she prefers to be known only by her first name; she fears that her association with N'Zinga could jeopardize her current job at a city agency, "given the nature of Shaka's case." And like Nathaniel, she has been active in the local anarchist klatsch for several years.

Sarah is in her mid-20s, having grown up and gone to college in Baltimore. She first became aware of N'Zinga's case as an activist working with Claustrophobia, but she says she got to know him through his writing.

"I remember very vividly sitting in one of my classes--I was an undergrad at the time--and being bored out of my mind, and I had this pamphlet with me," she says. "And I started reading it, and I was really struck by it."

The piece was the prose-poem "Anarchist Rain."

"Rarely do you find someone who has freedom who thinks of rain in that way," Sarah says. "And then you come across someone who's locked down and who's supposed to be this animal, and then he's just not. It was really beautiful, and it struck me."

She wrote him, and they began corresponding. After a long friendship steeped in radicalism, research on his case, and writing, their relationship took a new turn.

"I think when you feel certain things about people, you just kind of know. It doesn't have to be said, it doesn't have to be recognized, it just kind of happens," Sarah says. "We don't have an anniversary date or anything like that. But I think almost from the first day, we were--not involved in a romantic relationship--but we knew there was that connection, that potential."

She and N'Zinga "plan on getting married at some point," she says, but his imprisonment keeps them off a timetable. Three years ago they had a child together, a daughter named Minnie, though neither parent will indicate whether this was the result of a conjugal visit or other means.

Sarah is particularly attuned to the difference in race between her and N'Zinga, if for no other reason than the issue keeps presenting itself: "A lot of people ask that, actually--why would he, with his political beliefs, be with a Caucasian? But people are people rather than black or white necessarily. . . . I think that in this world we try to make everything black and white. It's either the blue-eyed devil or it's not. And I think he sees a lot of grays."

In fact, this fluidity of thinking is an important part of N'Zinga, she adds, which audiences might not apprehend from his writing. "I think everyone has a very sensitive side, including him, and I think that will probably come out in future publications," she says. "Not a sensitive side in the sense of wimpy or anything like that. More like sensitive to what's happening around him, suffering in the world, the struggles that people are going through. And I think he realizes that people are struggling no matter who they are."

For his part, N'Zinga is as characteristically mum about the relationship as he is about those few parts of his life that fall outside the confines of his book or his legal case. On the topic of engagement, he shrugs, says, "You can't plan on anything in here," and then looks over his shoulder.

As to the racial difference in their relationship, he reiterates that it's not white people he hates but "ugly thinking," and Sarah's credentials as a fellow anarchist keep her well outside that pale. Indeed, if you point out to N'Zinga that most of those who give him support and affection from the outside are white, he is less than sanguine.

"Just because it can't be overlooked," he says, "doesn't mean it can't be forgiven."

If Arthur Wiggins was looking for forgiveness, or an opportunity to plead his innocence, he missed them both when in 1990 he wrote a letter to the judge who convicted him.

"On the date of February 7, 1989, I was sentence to forty years for a rape and murder charge," Wiggins wrote to Judge Joseph Pines, in the workmanlike handwriting of a grade-schooler. "I know the crime I took part in was wrong. But Sir I was only 15 yrs old when this had happened. . . . When all of this happened I was under a lot of pressure. I was having problems at home, school and with my so called friends. I look back now and see that I was manipulated by a 22 year old man. Manipulated into believing that it was cool to do what I did." At this point, Wiggins drew a single slash through the "I" in that last sentence and wrote what looks like "we," in tiny letters, above it. "To think that it was a manly thing to do (to a woman). I was a fool to believe the guy. And God knows that I am sorry for what happened to that girl! I have been in this place for a while. I have seen a lot of bad things and a whole lot of bad things has happened to me! Sir, if you would understand what I am going through I do not want to die in prison. . . . Sir, through all of this bad (evil) I have found God, my family and love for other's. Sir, I know that I am ask for a lot. But only if I could get one more chance? To prove that I am not a criminal, a nobody. And prove that I am a person a human being! So Sir, I would be greatful if you would call me back for a reduction of my sentence. Thank you for your time. Yours Truly Arthur Wiggins #196-612 Peace+Love=Life. May God Bless."

At the top of the letter appears the handwritten word "Deny," underlined.

That a copy of this letter lingers in the raft of papers that is Wiggins' court file no doubt wicks attention away from other exhibits that might work in his defense. And its presence might partly explain why none of the efforts to appeal Wiggins' conviction have advanced the argument that he is, in fact, innocent. Instead, they have attempted to unpack a nexus of issues surrounding the day in 1989 when he pleaded guilty to first degree rape and murder.

In 1993, Wiggins retained attorney Margaret Mead for a post-conviction hearing of his case in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City. She built her argument around the theme that the public defender who represented Wiggins in the Wantland case, a lawyer named Robert Fineberg, was deficient. He didn't meet with Wiggins to discuss the case until the day of his hearing, she claimed, and failed to look into Wiggins' history of mental illness, as well as other factors that might have aided his defense. "As a result," the petition states, Wiggins "claimed not to have had a 'clear understanding' of the guilty plea, thus rendering it involuntary."

N'Zinga affirms that Fineberg didn't meet with him, on the day of his guilty plea, until one hour before entering the courtroom. He says he was not asked about his history of mental illness, his state of intoxication, or anything else that could have mitigated the charges against him. Then there was the exchange that now convinces N'Zinga that his imprisonment has always had more to do with race than with guilt. He says another, unnamed attorney gave him this advice:

"He said, 'Mr. Wiggins, this is not about whether you're guilty or you're innocent. The victim was white, you're black, the jury will give you life if this goes to trial," N'Zinga recalls. "Believe me, the man's words echo through my mind." Assured by this lawyer that he would get no more than 11 years, Wiggins entered a guilty plea.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I was 16 years old, and the way I was living--shit--there was no detox center in there. I didn't know. . . . I was just doing what I was told."

The court denied Wiggins' post-conviction bid, deciding, in its words, that Fineberg's representation, "while perhaps somewhat less than cautious, reflects reasonable professional conduct."

As for basing an appeal on Wiggins' mental health, that proved to be a blade that only cut against him. Psychological reports from Wiggins' days at the Hickey School in 1987 and '88 were trundled out to prove that, while he could "understand instructions and comprehend communications," he was also "highly capable of committing extremely violent and aggressive acts without feelings of remorse." Another psychiatrist who had treated Wiggins agreed that he could understand what was going on in court, but additionally said he suffered from "severe conduct disorders, extremely poor judgment, and significant reality deficits." He added, "In a number of ways I guess Arthur seemed to see others as being against him."

When asked why he isn't denying the rape and murder charges in court now, N'Zinga eclipses in expression. "It doesn't even matter," he says. "You think I can get justice at this point? They already got 15 years of my life. Fifteen. How much more do they want? Another 10? Twenty? You think that's going to get me justice? I got 25 left anyway. You have no idea the humiliations I've had to endure."

When asked, in different phrasing, why his case hasn't been based on his innocence, on backing up his claim that he left the house while Jean Wantland was being raped and killed, he says, "Because it doesn't matter."

Only when asked point-blank if he denies the charges against him does he address the issue. "I do. Like I told that woman lawyer [Mead], I may not remember much from those three days, but I know I didn't rape shit and I didn't kill shit. I just helped carry the body out. And for a long time I tried to convince myself that that meant I was guilty--" he cuts himself short, swats it away.

If N'Zinga is not stentorian in protesting his innocence, he's equally sedate about those who still carry the cause for him on the outside.

Nathaniel, the anarchist who discovered N'Zinga's writing, wrote an afterword to A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live that makes the case for N'Zinga's innocence. Written under the pseudonym Marc Salotte, it describes young Wiggins, then "a New Afrikan man-child," as "the perfect scapegoat" and as being "in the same boat" with the victim Jean Wantland. As a black man and a young woman, it argues, they were both fodder for the same cannon, "allies against a way of life that served them both death sentences." The afterword also builds on the official account that Wiggins gave to police of June 30, 1988, that he and Jeff Saffell left the house before the assault and came back to find Wantland dead. It claims that Saffell originally corroborated this story but then--under interrogation and what Nathaniel suspects was "a good deal of pressure"--confessed that both he and Wiggins were there and took part in the crime.

Of the plea Nathaniel makes on his behalf in the codicil of his own book, N'Zinga is impassive. He shrugs: "That's what Nathaniel wanted to say."

Given his outward nonchalance about the support he receives locally, it seems nearly fitting that N'Zinga is manifestly disturbed at the prospect that other anarchist groups, in the United States and other countries, list him as a political prisoner.

"That's just because they found out about my case and want to add their own stuff to it," he says. "I'm not a political prisoner. A political prisoner is somebody who's imprisoned because of their political beliefs, their philosophy. I'm a prisoner of conscience, someone who has gained consciousness in prison, who has developed an awareness of his place in the world."

And it's here that you sense that the shift has taken place. That at times it's Arthur talking--abrupt, defensive, wounded, and very rightfully cynical. And at others it's Shaka--righteous, repaired, proud, and fully self-possessed. When the topic of conversation has the scent of victimization about it--his childhood, his case, the courts--it's Arthur who delivers the anger and obfuscation. But when talk turns to politics, the big picture, the meaning of it all, Shaka is glad to take the parole with dignity and flair. They are conjoined, and they carry the weight together.

In the end, it's a bifurcation that many of those around him have embraced. When it comes to reconciling their passion for his cause with his torturous past, they almost talk of him as if Arthur and Shaka are men sutured together, indivisible but discernable, as if Shaka cannot be held responsible for what Arthur did or didn't do.

"Do I think Shaka's innocent?" Nathaniel muses. "I think he's definitely innocent of the things he was convicted of. I mean, he happened to be around when the woman was killed, and that's something that sticks with you. You don't wash that away. But I think with all prisoners, people should look at who they are, what they're doing, and what they believe now. . . . It's like trying to hold someone who's 40 or 50 responsible for what they were involved in at 14 or 15."

"Well, I think he's made peace with that, and that's the important part," Sarah observes of her fiancé's past. "I didn't know the old him, I only know the Shaka that exists today, which is a very different person. And it's almost inconceivable that he could be that way. But he was a product of his environment, and this world is brutal, especially in the ghetto. And I don't think you or I could appreciate that circumstance."

Related stories

Feature archives

More Stories

Thanks For the Memories (12/23/2009)
2007: I had a borderline awful time in Bucharest—and I kind of miss it

Vini Vidi Vito (4/8/2009)
Vito Simone came to Baltimore, saw opportunity, and conjured a real estate fantasy

Preacher, Teacher, Forger, Spy (4/16/2008)
From Bounty Hunter to Bible Thumper, Pastor Anthony Hill Presents a Paradox

More from Blake de Pastino

Face in the Crowd (5/11/2005)
Dozens Of Artists Vie For Your Eye In The Solid But Sprawling Show At Gallery Four

Mind Candy (5/4/2005)
Lee Boot Discovers the Source of Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Lori Larusso: The Whole and the Small (5/4/2005)

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter