Congratulations Harold for graduating from Liberation Literacy this past weekend! Harold was awarded the George Jackson award for his fervor in fighting for justice and equity (thus being dangerous to the system).
Congratulations to Nash Hasan who graduated this past week from Liberation Literacy and was awarded the Ericka Huggins Award for his commitment to raising up the voices of marginalized youth and for his passion for poetry. Check out his book - Diamonds in the Rough: The Youth of America.
Congratulations to Karl Armstrong, who graduated from Liberation Literacy on Wednesday. Karl was awarded the Jimmy Boggs Award for his dedication to the struggle.
By Ben Hall
October 22, 2010
I met my second cousin Jackie yesterday for the first time. The last time I saw her in a picture she was just a small child. We have been writing for a while. Jackie feels comfortable sharing her life with me she says, she knows I will not judge her. They pull me from a writing workshop in the chapel and the visit is unexpected. I am a little disappointed to leave the workshop but excited when I find out its Jackie. As I enter the visiting room I see a slender auburn haired girl sitting with her back to me. I approach knowing it’s Jackie and I’m reminded of the array of emotions I’ve felt over years for Jackie and her sisters without even meeting them.
I think about Collin serving his 20-year sentence for the years of torment he put Jackie and her sisters through. When Jackie was big enough she fought back, so Collin had his friend hold her down. What was wrong with this guy who couldn’t even admit what he did and had no remorse. I am one who believes in forgiveness, but it’s hard! Every day Collin gets to get out of bed when really maybe someone should have just put a bullet through your head. But I don’t want to think about you right now Collin.
Jackie looks up and gives me a nervous smile as we shake hands. Its always a little uncomfortable in person for the first time, especially inside a prison. Jackie is tall, beautiful, and only 21 years old. We talk like old friends cut from the same fabric of life, exchanging family war stories and laughing about our aunt’s mannerisms.
We take two photos together, one for each of us to keep. I am so happy to meet her, but my heart begins to feel heavy as she speaks of the “brothers,” referring to an outlaw motorcycle club she runs around with. Lifting her shirt, she shows me a tattoo I’ve seen on countless other convicts; it is a pistol on her waistband, the way gangsters do. My heart is broken as I leave the visit because I see what she cannot: the end result of a lifestyle that takes your beauty and sucks dry your vitality, leaving you betrayed and alone.
But I’m not going to be pushy. I simply tell her, don’t let anyone abuse you cousin, that she is family and always has a place with me. We hug and she tell me she will come again. On my way back to my block, I push my anger for Collin down and one thing I know for sure, come what may for Jackie, I’ll pray for her and I will be there if I can.
By Ben Hall
May 15, 2015
She must have been 8 or 9 in the picture sitting on carpeted steps the color of purple next to her mother with her little sister Britney and her grandma Her smile held the minutest traces of joy and pillars of a fragile hope for a future uncertain. Reunited with her mother recently from foster care she looked so happy and hopeful. She could never have known the horrors and cruelty that would hammer her in life. She searched for lovers who continued to tear down those poorly reconstructed and frail pillars of hope that lacked foundations. She and I felt a kinship because the world told us we had no voice and that we mattered less. I wrote about meeting her for the first time, eerily prophetic of her fate and my fear of the new lovers she had chosen who armored her skin with skulls, smoking guns, and “Property of” and “Joker birch” further encasing her heart with chain mail. Lovers of the “wrong sort” and those who live outside the borders of society, many would say. She warred with demons perhaps none of us could imagine. Those who have a prominent voice never spoke for her, they had names for her, names like whore, drug addict, criminal, outcast and rebellious. Those of us who knew her best called her lost, daughter, sister, and cousin. We called her loved. Those of us who have no voice speak the loudest for her. We called her child, and I called her friend and family from the moment I met her, up until May 9, 2014, when the Salem police murdered her by putting a bullet in her head and chest, silencing the already voiceless voice after just 25 years of life.
Those lovers of the “wrong sort” paid for Jackie’s memorial and showed up with some many motorcyclists it looked like funeral procession for a four-star general. They loved her. Jackie was loyal and kind. She once entered an oil wrestling contest and won so she could pay for a brother’s prosthetic leg after he lost it in a wreck, and her picture hands on the wall of the Gypsy Joker club house: one of the only two women there with the fallen since 1969.
Her search for lovers has ended as the Lover of her soul, who made her, welcomed her into heaven laying an eternal bedrock beneath the pillars of that childhood smile, never again to be demolished. Her name was Jackie, she was my family an I loved her. I love her still and she mattered. Will you speak for her?
Congratulations to Paul H. Grice, III, who graduated yesterday from Liberation Literacy and was awarded the Huey P. Newton Recruitment Award. Paul will help lead our outside reading group, which launches June 4th at the Mercy Corps Reentry Transition Center (RTC) on 1818 NE MLK, Jr. Boulevard!
By Ben Hall
Oh how I’ve longed to reach you, to give you clarity, but I’ve always been up too close to see clearly. The winds of time have pushed bitter cold carrying one hurt to follow, as another has ended. The side of my hair now spottily blending to gray as if the smoldering holes, my knees ache when I run and the years have started to corrode gray and brown crimson. I remember your bright blond hair and blue eyes, running care free from the fountain at Disney Land. I want to talk some sense in you and somehow imprint my experience on your young heart.
The storms of change can be sweet but so frigid. Please listen to your mother, obey the tender words that speak to you in the violent moments, express sadness in your heart. Look on your father with hope. I long to somehow promise you that the bottle of whiskey will not always be hidden behind that pillow on the couch, that the harsh words hitting you like bullets are simply the demon in the rusty liquid and it will not defeat you. I want to tell you that your father loves you and he is a good man. Don’t run out into 39th until the light turns green, when you eat all the strawberries under the cover of darkness by the light of the refrigerator, don’t wipe the scarlet evidence on your underwear, and don’t keep your eyes open when you kiss Tina for the first time.
Please look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are of value and worth, take courage that your weighty pain has purpose, the wounds will heal and not just you, but those you encounter. Remember that your own momentary pleasure is not worth the carnage of those who love you.
I would tell you don’t get into those cars with Jay and Dominic, or with Bones, but I know you will not listen and if you don’t get into those cars you’ll be robbed of a lifetime of friends who are family and that your scars will turn to stars. Remember you have purpose.
Finally, love your Momma now, cherish every moment. Those moments are life. Tell your Dad you love him and need him and remember everyone has a context of value. I have learned to love you and I’m sorry it took me so long. And remember to celebrate every moment you have with gratitude, because those moments slip away so fast.
My poem touches and caresses the paper
Words interlace and blaze on the sheet
Silent tears of ink,
bleeding emotion, soundless screams
I speak the words trembling, in fear’s face.
Their quintessence travel the breeze in a whisper of sound,
with rhythm, passion and metaphorically masked famine.
Speaking of where I’ve been, where I am stuck
and where I long to go but cannot.
Does the gaining impetus carry my cries to your ears?
Or will I again be cursed for this thirst?
Can you taste the salty mist on your tongue,
as my tears bend beneath the weight of the breeze?
Pulled in trickling sideways streams from the sea of my heart.
Can you hear what they say?
Screaming for someone to see past my worst act.
If you would only touch me with a hand of kindness!
And see my humanity.
Then, my heart would become a healing rainmaker,
released through my fingertips
and spoken through my lips.
I heard what sounded like a bowling ball hitting the floor with a thud and the familiar sound of a scuffle ensued I stepped out of my cell to see two men tussling on the concrete. One man was mounting the other as prisoners watched while pretending not to. The man on the bottom scratched, clawed, kicked and eventually bit, attempting to recover from a punch that caught him off guard. I heard his high-pitched scream as the man atop him dug both thumbs into his eye sockets and I felt sick to my stomach; sick to my stomach that I was programmed and institutionalized to the point that I could stand idly by while another human being was being brutalized and do nothing. Why could I do nothing? I certainly still had a choice, albeit as long as I was willing to accept the consequence of that decision. However, the rules and norms of prison dictate that I must turn my head and walk on.
What does it mean to be institutionalized? How does it happen and who teaches it? Many define institutionalized “as the inability or struggle to function outside of prison.” Prison is very mechanical in its routines and interactions; there is an indifference comparable to its metal doors and bars. Both prisoners and correctional officers become jaded by the day-in-day-out grind of the prison, often looking through a lens clouded by stigmatization, labeling and patterns of criminal thinking. This machine that is prison is well-oiled at the top by administrators with rhetoric and phrases like rehabilitation, pro-social behavior promotion, and encouraging family connections; but this oil rarely trickles down to the ground floor of this prison machine (where we live every day), leaving it rusty. There is a deeper sense of humanity lost for the prisoner with each label or interaction with some in authority who silence his or her voice using that very authority to do so. When one turns on the news, a great percentage of media is crime-related. Consistently, news media refers to prisoners as thieves, murderers, monsters, subjects, and criminals without mentioning a context or narrative of any part of their humanity. This ideology that the mainstream media reinforces further desensitizes the public and de-humanizes prisoners who are sons, fathers, and human beings not simply defined by a choice or mistake.
Furthermore, the prison culture creates an us-against-them mentality. For the young man or woman entering prison, the cell blocks, the noise, the stench, the often-malicious prison guards, the indifferent prisoners, the lack of empathy, the geographically-marked territory of prison factions and gangs on the prison yard (and the once agents of change on both sides now burnt out and handcuffed by the system), these become the prisoners’ teachers. For many, it’s a veritable jungle of intimidation and brutality where only the fittest survive and they must adapt accordingly. Correctional officers can often fall right into this same dehumanizing, institutionalized way of thinking, some even contriving to arrange life so that it destroys the prisoner’s sense of personal value, degrades his or her human dignity, and deadens the fibers of his/her very being.
This whole daunting process snatches hope and dehumanizes individuals, reducing them to a subject without a voice. A few months after my family member was murdered by Salem police at age 25, I kept having negative interactions with correctional officers who used their authority to silence my voice. I struggled to find any motive or intention on their part outside of malevolence, often associating it with the killing of my cousin and the life she would never have because those in authority took her life. I nearly gave away all my hope. I packed up most of my small amount of property in my 6×8 cell, and one by one I began to remove pictures of my loved ones from my picture board. I first took down the picture of my mother and father, then the ones of 11-year-old Kate whose smile and kind words on paper had sustained me in darker times. Finally, I took down the pictures of me holding a blond little girl who gave me hope for the future each time she squeeze my neck with her little hands. It was as if I was packing up all hope in the bottom of my heart only to be carefully unpacked upon leaving this prison. The idea was that I did not want to allow them to have anything with which they could hold over me, or threaten to take, that I must focus only on what’s in front of me inside the prison. This kind of thinking is the extreme of institutionalization. Fortunately, this is not what happened to this prisoner because my connections are deeper and stronger than the apathy of these prison walls and the reach of those hands of loved ones reach farther than the hands of hate, but many do not have those strong connections.
When many often hear stories of violent encounters in prison, its frequently assumed prison is the place these violent men belong. The prison uses solitary confinement (23 hour a day lockdown) as a deterrent or punishment for even nonviolent breaches of the rules, often referring to prisoners in the hole (solitary confinement) as the “worst of the worst.” However, this is simply not the case, based on over 20 years of empirical evidence, according to an ACLU report on solitary confinement, “indeed, contrary to the assumption that a few worst of the worst prisoners cause violence in prisons, researchers have shown that the levels of violence in American prisons may have more to do with the way prisoners are treated and how prisons have been staffed and managed than the presence of a few ‘super-violent prisoners.'”
The way prisons are currently run in America and what they produce in men and women at the end of their sentence certainly suggests that many come out broken and institutionalized. This writer has been blessed to have experienced incredible moments of humanity inside these mechanical prison walls, but it was not because of the environment, but rather a fellow prisoner or staff member making a choice to be kind.
When we diminish the value of any human being, defining them by their worst moments, we fail as a community, as a country, and we fail as human beings. When we begin to see someone as less than human, it paves the way to treat them as less than human. I once sat with a man on death row who was dying. He was dying of congestive heart failure and was experiencing multiple system shutdowns as a result. Consequently, because he was a death row inmate he was not allowed to be around other human beings. It was determined by non-medical administrative staff (over the phone) that no one was allowed in the same room with this man. This man was at a stage in his dying process where he could no longer walk, or even speak. He nearly died alone devoid of human touch in a locked infirmary prison side room. Fortunately, a courageous nurse on the graveyard shift (who by choice no longer works here) followed her higher ethical values of humanity by calling up a prisoner hospice volunteer. Just as this man was dying of heart failure, so our prison system has created a heart failure of humanity.
“They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.”
“W]e again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.”
Taken together, these citations demonstrate the parallel King draws between violence in Vietnam and violence in the United States. The motivating force is “Western arrogance” and its dominating, destructive impact on those who are on the receiving end. Central to his argument is that these parallels are not representative of separate events. Rather, the war in Vietnam exports the destructive race relations in the United States abroad, forcing Vietnamese people to suffer and die at the hands of Black and white soldiers, while the government and white citizens in the United States continue to inflict violence on Black citizens at home.
King explains the inhumane and illogical exportation of violence and domination by highlighting the inconsistency in supporting the war and also supporting civil rights efforts. He insists that in order to pursue mutual resolution and peace, there must be trust between parties. And when the United States has shown nothing but state sanctioned murder and destruction of land, there is no reason for the Vietnamese people to trust that peace and access to resources are the intended result of the war.
“Beyond Vietnam” was specifically targeted to an American audience to convince people that silence condones the suffering of other humans. King speaks to the ignorance of Americans, and how we do not understand the international impact of the violence we perpetuate. He shows that Americans felt distant from the daily struggles of Vietnamese people during the war, failing to recognize that we were condemning innocent Vietnamese people and fighting a war we had to place in. The distance from human experience is the ultimate tool of domination, in this instance, as it facilitated the inaction of American citizens who didn’t consider the daily plight of Vietnamese people. Institutions within the United States still do this; we still rely on the distance between Americans with institutional power and the people we persecute to justify inhumane treatment. Demonizing and distancing the narratives of those who receive the violence of “Western arrogance” is how we maintain the prison industrial complex and how we remain ignorant to murder and destruction abroad. At risk of being ahistorical, King’s argument rings true 50 years later—even when considering the many differences in our current American context.