It is my immense privilege and honor to be asked to write a few words about an organizer, an activist, a writer, a thinker, a comrade, a brotha who I have the utmost respect and love for: Saleem.
I met Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, in 2001 through the Human Rights Coalition, a group of prisoners families. At that point he had been incarcerated for 11 years (that number is now up to 17 – more time in prison than free), serving Life Without Parole for a crime he was convicted of as a juvenile.
Like myself, Saleem is the product of an interracial relationships (“a fellow half breed,” as he likes to joke with me), and his mother, Rose, was one of HRC’s earliest members. Getting to build on being black folks in the struggle who happen to have white mothers was a really powerful experience for me, as it was not something I had gotten to do before. At that time, I had not met any other black folks who were able to honor the efforts and struggles that our mothers went through with our commitment to justice for our people -- black people -- and for all people. But both Saleem’s and my mother taught us what standing up for our rights and for the rights of the oppressed was in their own ways, and gave us the tools to be the people we are today. In 2004, Rose passed away, and I can’t imagine the pain of losing your mother, especially from behind bars. But, as with everything else, he used it to rededicate himself to the cause of justice, saying, “I still fight on encouraged by her words ‘Never give up!’”
Saleem had been truly politicized at the age of 23 when he was locked in various infamous control units throughout the state for almost three years straight. Control units consist of staying in a cell the size of an average person’s bathroom for 23 out of 24 hours a day, no physical contact with anyone but the guards, limited visiting and phone privileges, a complete void of outside stimulation. Control units are designed to break the spirit and have been proven to break the mind. They did neither in Saleem’s case, as he shows in his writing: “In isolation you have only yourself and I discovered myself. It was there that I seriously started to become politicized.” He used that time as a true souljah for the people, studying under the tutelage of a knowledgeable “old head” Dennis “Solo” McKeithan, reading, gaining wisdom and beginning to write articles (his first was entitled “Control Units: High Tech Brutality” and was published in a magazine in California).
In early 2001, just a few months after the organization was formed, Saleem’s mother Rose sent an HRC flyer to her son and it wasn’t long before Saleem got involved and started sending ideas for campaigns, giving feedback on projects, sharing his powerful and insightful writing with us, and dialoguing. I and many other members of HRC quickly came to trust his guidance and judgment, and I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and intelligence. It wasn’t long before Saleem was on our Advisory Council, providing guidance on the mission and working on different projects.
But through the six years that I have known Saleem through letters, articles and phone calls, I have come to respect him as more than just an amazing organizer (he helped put together Buried Alive!, a publication from HRC about solitary confinement that was presented at a conference in 2006; he helped to found the Pittsburgh chapter of HRC; he is the prison correspondent for activist publication The Defenestrator, as well as a regular contributor to many other publications); I have come to respect his integrity, his principles and his vision. We have dialogued quite often about the nature of the struggle to build a new just world, present, past and future. His articles show the depth of his mind and commitment, and the scope of his knowledge. His ability to link issues and ideas together theoretically while still finding practical applications for them within organizing work he’s doing is a talent that I have learned from and tried to emulate over the years.
Saleem understates the pain, torture and oppression he has lived through in 17 years in prison when he says, “I continue to struggle within the prisons against injustice and it has been a hard experience. I have spent years in the hole because of my activism.” But despite that, or perhaps because of it, he is one of the most dedicated loving individuals it has ever been my privilege to work with. In his own simple yet powerful words, “I will continue to fight for my freedom and to build a better world.”