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“They stood up:” THEKINGTRILL on his new Pendleton 2 documentary

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by Mario Gaona

Editor’s note: The following is an interview with IDOC Watch field organizer THEKINGTRILL who sat down with a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Muncie, Indiana, to discuss his role in the movement to free the Pendleton 2 and the greater fight against injustice in the United States prison system. He is an advocate and direct supporter of incarcerated people and those exiting through his work in the community reentry program Focus Initiatives LTD., IDOC Watch, and the Freedom Campaign to Free the Pendleton 2.  THEKINGTRILL produced a documentary titled, “The Pendleton 2: They Stood Up,” which tells the story of John ‘Balagoon” Cole and Christopher “Naeem” Trotter. You can directly support his work and music by emailing him at the newkingtrill@gmail.com and on YouTube.

“They stood up:” An interview on the Pendleton 2 and the struggle against racist mass incarceration

Mario Gaona: Can we start with an introduction of who you are and what you do in the movement to free the Pendleton 2?

THEKINGTRILL: They call me THEKINGTRILL. I’m the director for Focus Initiatives, LTD; a reentry program for the incarcerated coming home to help prevent them from returning to the carceral system. I am also a field organizer for IDOC Watch to organize and fight against injustices for the incarcerated in the state of Indiana. We advocate for people who are incarcerated throughout the country, but our focus is here in Indiana. So that’s who I am, that’s who I work for, and what I do.

As for my part in the Defense Committee, I got exposed to the Defense Committee by being a member of IDOC Watch and the different stories of the different people incarcerated that we come in contact with. And they exposed me to the story of the Pendleton 2, which is Christopher Trotter and John Cole. The injustice that they became victims of back in 1985 and still suffer that consequence to this very day. 

People who were incarcerated at that time, mostly men of color in Pendleton, were victimized by a group of sadistic officers. It turns out those officers were members of a white supremacist group, Ku Klux Klan Splinter group if you will, called the Sons of Light. This particular day they began to brutalize a particular inmate of color while he was cuffed up and continued to assault him to the point that Cole and Trotter felt like it might result in his death. They intervened to stop the killing of an inmate. 

Even though Cole and Trotter did not kill anyone, the fact that they stood up for themselves was crime enough and justified to the state to give those men over 200 years in prison. When I saw the level of injustice that this case presented, I definitely wanted to become a part of the movement. I directed a documentary called “The Pendleton 2: They Stood Up.” It’s on YouTube, it gains more views every day, and we really want to use it to raise awareness of what’s going on. 

So that’s how I came up to be with the Defense Committee to Free the Pendleton 2. That’s what I’ve currently done with them, as well as canvassing, going to many different events, talking to people. We’re talking to everybody from family members to lawyers, to find out what we can do through the court systems to get Cole and Trotter relief. We’re working right now to talk to different legislators of the state of Indiana, so that we can get some type of relief and new eyes to be put upon this case so that we can get it in a new standing.

MG: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I’ve seen a lot of the work from IDOC Watch this year, and the PSL has been honored to work with you all for several years now.. Your documentary is phenomenal. I really enjoyed it and it had a lot of good information and shows exactly what you’re talking about, the real injustices these two men have faced. 

Could you reflect on how just this year in February IDOC Watch obtained the documents from the testimony of Indiana State Reformatory (now Pendleton Correctional facility) guard Michael Richardson? How has that changed the trajectory of what you have pushed for this year? Because that’s direct evidence. 

THEKINGTRILL: Well, it definitely is direct evidence and right now we’re working on revising the documentary because of testimony from Mr. Richardson. He was an officer who worked at Pendleton in 1985, and he was actually complaining about the abuse of these white supremacists’ officers that he worked with. He actually made a complaint about this before the uprising even took place. Had somebody acknowledged what he said, what he felt was coming due to the manner in which those officers would carry themselves, that situation never would’ve took place, you know? 

We did get some information from his testimony, and now we’re trying to reach out to him directly to have that apply to the documentary as well. In the documentary now, I read some of his testimony and it would be a very strong visual to see an officer corroborate their story, who wasn’t on the Sons of Light’s side, you know? I think that would be powerfully impactful.

The testimony was interjected to give us a new direction. Because everything had been slow moving but with the documentary, it’s kind of picked up pace. I mean as far as social awareness in making people understand that this injustice in particular has happened and that there are lots of other injustices that have to do with the criminal justice system. It’s a very, very, very flawed system and it’s time that we consider something new, you know. 

That’s new blood that has been pushed into this campaign by getting some of this new information from people who wasn’t actually incarcerated during this uprising. We’re getting corroborating stories from people who were officers, people who were staff. lawyers in particular who defended these guys in different stages after the uprising. They also have significant things to contribute. So, we want to get all that a part of the story so people can see how big and broad it truly was. 

As far as myself with some of the things we’ve done, it’s been a very interesting year for me because a lot of events that we have done have been on college campuses throughout the state. On campus, there are social awareness events where different groups and organizations all gather together to introduce themselves to each other, to show what different things they’re doing for the community to raise people’s awareness, and to form bonds and relationships. Cause sometimes my struggle and your struggle can reinforce one another, you know? If we come together and help each other in the process, you know?

So, we’ve gone to several of those events. We’ve passed out, man, thousands of pamphlets and reading material and obtained hundreds and hundreds of signatures that we’ve sent to legislators and courtrooms.

We’ve been very active in getting the word out about what happened and building our relationships as we go down the road. That has got to be at the heart of what brings about the change in these men’s lives and get them the relief that they deserve at this point. First of all, we have to make people aware of what the Department of Corrections has done, and they’ve done a masterful job at hiding this. They’ve kept it hidden for some time and we have to start there. We have to first expose the secret that they so cleverly put away for so long. So that’s what we’re doing for our first step. 

And then next year our plan for the Defense Committee is to take those relationships, those bonds that we’ve made, and that social awareness that we’ve raised amongst the community and get it to mobilize. To put it to work in certain areas, at certain times so that people and especially the legislators can see these are more than signatures on a piece of paper or some popup email that came across their radar. These are actually people on the ground who are demanding answers and want some type of response, you know? So, we’re doing it in steps, but we have our plan laid out, our strategy laid out, and we’re just moving along as it goes, you know? But I do feel like we are going to get these men the relief that they deserve, you know, I think there are powerful forces working with us to achieve it. 

MG: Absolutely. And I think the Five Demands of the Freedom Campaign are really thorough. They really hit, like you said, at the heart of these issues so that people can see what’s really happening: free our elders, free all political prisoners, you know the five.

THEKINGTRILL:  Yeah. 

MG: Organizers obviously have to have optimism, we have to have that revolutionary optimism going forward. In my experience, it’s almost palpable how real the optimism is with the people too. How hopeful are you for the social awareness development in Indiana as opposed to years past? It seems like a movement like this, at this time really is what Indiana needs for people to start pushing for real prison abolition and the freedom of so many incarcerated community members. 

THEKINGTRILL: You know, that is a good question, man. It just so happened that all of this stuff happened recently, especially after the George Floyd situation and him being murdered in the street. This state has never been too sympathetic to racial disparities and struggles of the impoverished, you know? But after the murder took place so many people right here from Indiana took to the streets in big numbers all across the state; not just in Indianapolis. They were expressing their discontent and dissatisfaction with the system. Right then I saw a difference in the mobilization of the people. 

We have that current running in our community now, that current of people understanding, “hey, sometimes you have to take to the street.” Sometimes you have to let it be known that you are totally against the status quo and what’s taking place now. I’ve seen it happen, which gives me great encouragement for the future. I know that we can continue to use that energy and put it towards the movement for justice, for people who have been done wrong. 

We can use that same energy to mobilize and build off of the wave that’s already been created.