Famed activist and scholar Angela Davis along with anti-racist activists across the country say prominent jailhouse lawyer and Black liberation activist Anthony Gay was falsely convicted for a gun crime in order to send Gay back to prison, where Gay and his supporters say he was tortured in solitary confinement for living with untreated mental illness.
In 2018, Gay was released from an Illinois prison, where he spent 22 years in solitary confinement. To secure his release, he convinced a local state’s attorney that he had been wrongly condemned to serve consecutive rather than concurrent sentences for the rest of his life. Gay became a leading advocate for a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement in Illinois to 10 days in a 180-day period.
However, in May 2019, he was arrested during a traffic stop and charged with allegedly illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition after fleeing from Rock Island, Illinois police — a charge that activists say is patently false. On May 31, 2019, a car Gay was riding in was pulled over for a traffic violation. Federal prosecutors claim Gay attempted to flee and was arrested after falling a short distance away. Prosecutors claim a handgun was allegedly found by police in Gay’s “path,” according to a brief statement from U.S. attorney’s office for central Illinois. A couple weeks later, police claimed they found ammunition for the handgun while searching a motel room where Gay was staying at the time of the arrest.
Yet Gay and his supporters say he faced discrimination in the courtroom and was set up by police, who provided the court with no physical evidence whatsoever that Gay possessed the gun allegedly found at the scene in May 2019, according to the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression.
After successfully representing himself in a federal trial that ended with a hung jury, Gay, who is Black, was retried and convicted on May 19 by an all-white jury.
“His first federal trial on these charges less than a month earlier, ended in a hung jury, demonstrating that Anthony had convincingly argued that these charges were false,” Davis said in a statement on Monday. “Even more remarkably, he achieved that hung jury pro se – that is, representing himself.”
Supporters say Gay’s latest conviction echoes the state’s prior attempts to keep him locked away for most of his life. Gay was originally incarcerated at the age of 20 after driving without a license while on parole for stealing $1 and a hat. His already harsh seven-year sentence was extended multiple times after he began to suffer from mental illness in prison.
Instead of providing mental health treatment, the Illinois Department of Corrections locked him in solitary confinement — living alone with very little human contact, in a tiny cell— for years after allegedly getting into fights, according to a lawsuit Gay filed in federal court. (Even 15 days in solitary confinement is torture, according to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture.) Supporters contend Gay was “brutalized” by prison guards and locked in solitary confinement for defending himself and defying prison authorities.
Solitary confinement is widely considered a form of torture that is particularly damaging for people with mental illness. Gay has said he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and was known to practice self-harm in the absence of proper treatment.
In addition to being punished for his mental illness, advocates say, he was punished for advocating for himself.
“Anthony has no law degree,” Davis said. “He learned the law through his own independent studies while spending 24 years in Illinois prisons, twenty-two of which were spent in solitary confinement.”
Davis and other activists say Gay is a political prisoner once again.
“There is no physical evidence tying Anthony to the gun they convicted him of possessing,” Davis said. “The police officer who testified that Anthony looked like he had a gun also falsified some of his testimony.”
The chief of police at the Rock Island Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Gay represented himself again after the first federal trial over the gun charges resulted in a hung jury. Gay was retried before the same white federal district court judge, supporters say, who colluded with prosecutors to ensure Gay would face an all-white, pro-police jury in Peoria, Illinois, where the population is 27 percent Black. Throughout the trial, Gay argued that police did not have physical evidence to prove he was carrying the gun, which law enforcement claimed was reported stolen and crossed state lines.
“No fingerprints or DNA were found on the pistol the police found near where Anthony was arrested,” Davis said. “Even harder to explain, there were there no prints or DNA on the bullets.”
At the same time, Gay and his attorney recently agreed to $25,500 settlement, plus attorney’s fees and court costs, to be paid by the City of Rock Island over a civil case alleging police misconduct one week before Gay’s arrest on gun charges. Gay said he was in a car with family members when they were shot at 13 times while stopped at an intersection. Gay claims the officers who responded blatantly violated his rights, according to the Quad-City Times:
Gay said he was ordered at gunpoint by responding Rock Island police officer J.T. Key to put his hands in the air and get on his knees. He claims another officer, Scott Gable, “aggressive cuffed and forced” him to his knees after telling officers he could not kneel. While cuffed, Gay alleges Key “ran up and kneed” him in the face.
He also alleges police illegally searched him, threw his phone and illegally seized $1,500 in cash and a hotel key.
His suit claims Rock Island police violated his Fourth Amendment right, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Other counts alleged in the complaint include battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unlawful detainment, unlawful imprisonment and denial of equal protection.
Gay’s claim that police seized his hotel key shortly before he was arrested for gun and ammunition possession — with the bullets allegedly confiscated from his hotel room — is evidence that Gay was framed in retribution for his activism, according to supporters.
Gay is scheduled to be sentenced on September 16 and faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He is appealing the conviction and appealing for support from anti-racist activists everywhere.
“The banality of our racist system of mass incarceration is punctuated with the heroism of stories of unconquerable souls,” Davis said. “Like George Jackson and Frank Chapman, Anthony not only educated himself in prison, but he also politicized himself.”
Before the retrial that ended in conviction, Gay said he was facing an uphill battle, but it’s a battle he is “cut out for.”
“I don’t think no one should back down from corruption,” Gay said. “I don’t think no one should back down from being wrongly prosecuted. I think you should always stand up. And since that’s my belief, I believe I have to lead by example.”