‘With Absolute Love’: Remembering David ‘Dawud’ Lee

David "Dawud" Lee sits in front of a poster

A tribute from Kris Henderson 

Mentor. Brother. Restorative Justice Practitioner. Community Builder. Uncle. Revolutionary. Friend. On Thursday, February 22nd, we didn’t lose a star in our constellation, we lost a universe. 

Dawud had a profound love of people. People as a whole and people as individuals. I believe that’s how he came to develop his unique capacity and ability to hold dozens, if not hundreds, of deep personal relationships with people.


David ‘Dawud’ Lee was a guiding light in our lives and someone who helped to convene and nurture our movement family. He would call and talk about politics, current events, movement strategy, or the latest book he was reading. The last book we talked about was The Myth of Normal which is about the impact of trauma on health, a topic we had talked about countless times.


I don’t remember when Dawud shifted from being a client and comrade to a friend, mentor, and chosen family. I don’t remember when he began signing his emails “With Absolute Love”.


It wasn’t that he made you feel like you were important to him, it’s that you were. He remembered birthdays and the little details of your life. His letters and conversations were sprinkled with love. His presence was felt by those closest to him and also by everyone who is a part of our movement. 


Hailing from North Philly and incarcerated at a young age, he let few things define him. Initially functionally illiterate, he taught himself how to read using a dictionary while trying to keep up with the teachings of revolutionary mentors who had inspired him, such as Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz.


Confined in a men’s prison that disproportionately kept Black and Brown men captive, he developed a deep and unwavering analysis over the years. He would break it down often, explaining how white supremacy and class rule intersected with patriarchy and other forms of domination as a part of the overall project of colonial subjugation and capitalism. Dawud was a natural teacher and could carefully shepherd even the most willful to understanding.


Dawud was preternaturally patient and would mentor people for years, even through stumbles and setbacks. Dawud gave countless people their first taste of unconditional love and that was as healing as the political education. Dawud mentored hundreds of people inside and outside of Pennsylvania prisons. The impact of his life on our movement is incalculable.


Everyone at Amistad Law Project has been proud to fight alongside Dawud for his freedom and the freedom of so many others. In 2022, with a chronic illness and over 30 years in prison, Dr. Williams and Harris Gubernick denied his plea for mercy. Two men who met Dawud briefly in the context of his application for commutation ignored the superintendent and staff at the prison where he had been incarcerated for over a decade. They ignored the letters from formerly incarcerated people who stated that Dawud’s mentorship had saved their lives, had helped turn their lives around, and that they had seen him do the same for others without any real hope of getting out of prison. They ignored, or disbelieved, his massive intellect and immense humility.


Dawud talked to everyone with respect but also refused to shame himself by cowering in the face of power. He was the definition of dignity.


It wouldn’t have been justice if Dawud came home in 2022 but it would’ve meant years at home with his family and access to better healthcare. It would have meant that he could’ve passed surrounded by family and loved ones instead of alone in a cell in the infirmary at SCI Coal Township. Dawud was to be voted upon for reconsideration on Friday, February 23rd on the grounds of his failing health. The day before that vote, he suddenly passed away.


He should have been home long ago. His health was wrecked in the prison environment where he didn’t receive the specialist care he would’ve enjoyed on the outside and he did not have the liberty to control his diet or the incredible stress of his environment.


Dawud believed, in the days leading up to the merit review hearings, that he would be successful. He had a peace about it. He was so sure that he would be coming home soon that I let his conviction ease my anxiety.


I know that the world is a little dimmer without his booming, easy laugh. I know everyone who knew him feels that lack. And I know that he would tell us that the fight isn’t over, that this is just a setback on the road to freedom for everyone. With Absolute Love.