Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The small world of Gary Tyler and me

Gary Tyler Must Be Free (1976)
In 1975 I was living in Chicago. There I got my first job in video and film production with a small production house named Video Works. I started as an electronics technician but also did some editing and hand acting on a film produced by October Productions titled "Gary Tyler Must Be Free" about a 17 year old African Youth that had been railroaded onto death row in Louisiana. It was my early introduction to filmmaking.

Gary Tyler was sentenced to death at age 17
Now he is building a new life in Venice 
In 1977, I move to Los Angeles. The next year I had a print of "Gary Tyler Must Be Free" sent to me. It became the west coast copy and it was shown a few places around California before it ended up with my stored possessions. Then, for almost forty years I have dragged in around with me although I didn't even have a way to view or show it. For all I knew, it could have been the only surviving print and I felt a historical obligation to see that it had a future, so even when I reduced my earthly belongings to what would fit in the space of my tiny Venice apartment, I found room for it on a closet shelf, and that is where it  set for the last decade.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I saw the cover of the beach communities' weekly tabloid, The Argonaut, to find that Gary Tyler, now out of prison, had also found his way to Venice! The paper announced a reception for him at Arena1 Gallery near the Santa Monica Airport on Saturday. I was working that day but I took an early lunch and was able to give him the film that I had so long saved for him.

The Argonaut published:
by Shirley Hawkins
Photos by Ted Soqui
28 June 2017
Wrongfully imprisoned for 41 years, Gary Tyler will discuss
his case on Saturday at Arena 1 Gallery in Santa Monica

Gary Tyler is finally at peace. The tranquil Craftsman homes and lush tree-lined streets of Pasadena are a far cry from the grim, gray walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, infamously known as Angola, the worst and bloodiest prison in the nation.

Tyler, 58, was incarcerated there for 41-and-a-half years for a crime he did not commit, arriving on death row before his 18th birthday.

“I feel free here,” says the soft-spoken Tyler, who now lives in a small, picturesque guest house where he frequently hosts local doctors, lawyers and activists — several of his longtime supporters.

“I can wake up in the morning and hear the birds chirping, smell the fresh air and feel the fresh breeze,” he says. “I enjoy the simple things — walking, talking to people, reading newspapers, learning how to drive and the fact that I can go anywhere without needing anyone’s permission.”

Despite having so much taken from him, Tyler spends much of his time giving back. Several times a week Tyler rides the Expo Line on the way to his job as an outreach and engagement support worker at Safe Place for Youth in Venice, where he helps homeless youth get off the streets.

“I see the potential in the kids who come from dysfunctional backgrounds. Even though they might be runaways, homeless or doing drugs, I tell them they are salvageable and that they still have potential,” Tyler says of his work. “I tell them to take advantage of all the opportunities that life affords them."

Bob Zaugh spent decades campaigning for Tyler’s
release, then helped him find housing and a job

Tyler’s nightmare began at age 16, when he was charged with murder, hastily convicted and, at 17, became the youngest inmate in American history to be incarcerated on death row.

This was 1974, when public schools across America were still undergoing desegregation. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Brown v. Board of Education 20 years earlier, racial tensions flared at Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, La.

Tyler was sitting on a bus with other African-American students when a crowd of about 200 white students began yelling racial slurs and throwing rocks and bottles at them. A gunshot rang out above the clamor and the bullet struck 13-year-old Timothy Weber, a white classmate who later died at the local hospital.

During the turmoil, Tyler witnessed his cousin being harassed by sheriff’s deputies and spoke up in his defense. They subsequently arrested Tyler and initially charged him with disturbing the peace and interfering with an officer’s duties.

“I was known for being outspoken,” says Tyler.

Investigators searched the bus for several hours but did not find a weapon, then transported the students to the substation to search it once again. This time, they reported finding a gun: a government-issue 45-caliber Colt automatic. Police would produce the gun as evidence at Tyler’s trial. Later, it was discovered that the weapon was identified as having been stolen from the sheriff’s firing range in Jefferson Parish, 10 miles away. The gun later disappeared from the evidence room.

Inside the sheriff’s substation, police cursed at Tyler and threatened him.

“They kept asking me questions about what happened on the bus,” Tyler remembers. “When I said I didn’t know anything, six or seven police officers brutally beat me for two or three hours in the booking room at the substation.”

Tyler’s mother arrived hoping to take her son home and was horrified when she heard his muffled screams. He was tried by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electric chair.

“I told them I was innocent, but no one listened,” says Tyler, his voice tinged by sadness at the memory of it.


Tyler still recalls the sense of fear he felt as the steel gate on his prison cell clanged shut.

“When the prison gates shut behind me, I felt as if I was shut off from the rest of the world,” he says. “You knew you would not exit those gates once they were closed.”

While languishing on death row for the next two years, Tyler wrote letters pleading for help and support from every media outlet he could think of, and eventually his case became national news. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional, and Tyler’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.

Tyler describes day-to-day life in Angola as a test of sheer survival.

“Angola was the bloodiest, most infamous prison in the nation,” he says.
“It was a place of turmoil where prisoners were killing each other and committing suicide. I saw horrible things— inmates being set on fire or stabbed with homemade spears. I saw inmates who were doused with acid by other inmates. Some prisoners even got beaten to death by guards.”

But Tyler did not have to face this without help. A group of inmates formed a bond to protect the vulnerable, frightened teen.

“They saw a little kid who was all alone,” Tyler recalls. “Many of them were uncles and fathers, and they stepped up as responsible men to make sure that nothing happened to me.”

Tyler went on to become a model prisoner, obtaining his GED, studying graphic arts and printing, and even attending paralegal school. He mentored other inmates and spent 17 years as a volunteer in the prison’s hospice care facility.

But it was an invitation to join Angola’s Drama Club that radically changed his life. For the next 20 years, Tyler headed that club, which led to him directing the passion play “The Life of Jesus Christ.” Impressed with the production, directors Jonathan Stack and Nicholas Cuellar filmed a documentary about the project titled “Cast the First Stone.” More...

Gary Tyler & Clay Claiborne, Santa Monica, 1 July 2017
Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!

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