Writing for Life

Over the years, I've been interviewed about various aspects of my life, including my writing life. Here I share one group of questions with you all as we begin the new year. Writing not just for work or for fun, but for life.

What kind of writer are you?

I write in various genres – poetry, children’s books, novels, stories, journalism, essays, memoir, and now screenplays. I try to bring craft and rigorous work to my writing, but also an emotional center. It’s an odd combination of discipline and follow-through with levels of don’t-give-a-shit madness. At the root of my work is a revolutionary soul. I want to transform myself, my community, my world. Words as hammer, words as feather. I know I’m in the right space when I write and it scares the hell out of me.

Why do you write?

Why do I write? To heal. To dance (words as drum). To wake up something beastly as well as some beauty (women are beauty – even if they don’t look too hot; men can carry beauty if they do their art well). I write to stay alive. I feel the most whole when I’m in a deep state of transcendental writing. Writing then is my practice, my career, my life line. I learned this when I was in jail, on heroin and other drugs, drinking, and suicidal. Turning to my art, I found what could save me. My writing always carries the wounds of my life, and it’s the gift these wounds have to offer.

What made you want to be a writer?

I first wrote while in jail and juvenile hall as a teenager. Something about telling my story overcame me. I felt the need to voice these experiences, these traumas, the depths of what I saw and where I had come to. I began a life of “crime” at seven. At age nine, my family fought all the time and once my oldest sister stabbed her husband. At ten my best friend was killed after we broke into an elementary school. At 11, I joined a gang. At 12 I started using drugs – huffing, dropping pills, then heroin. At 13, I began getting arrested for stealing, fighting, disturbing the peace. At 15 I dropped out of high school and got kicked out of the house. At 16 I was put into an adult facility following the so-called East LA Riot. At 17, I was arrested for attempted murder in which four people were shot. At 18, I faced a six-year prison sentence for fighting with police officers, I was hooked on heroin and by then 25 of my friends had been killed. I needed to tell why. I needed to express the pains, the sorrows, the hates as well as the glories of this reality. After I left “the life” at around 19 years (including getting clean of heroin “cold turkey”), I worked in industry – I became a welder, pipe fitter, mechanic, carpenter, smelter, and a steel mill worker. Again, so many stories accumulated in me. The pressure of the stories was so great, that by age 25, after seven years of drug addictions and seven years in industry, I decided to become a writer – working in weekly and daily newspapers, in radio, as a freelance journalist, and a poet. It’s the stories, damn, the stories. I went to school at night, took part in writing workshops and circles, and began this writing life that I’ve done seriously now for more than 25 years.

What advice would you give to a fellow writer who was just starting out?

Writing is a practice, a passion, hard work, a business, a dream, and the most frustrating thing in the world. A writer must withstand all of this. Oh, yes, sometimes there’s money and sometimes there’s recognition. But that’s only sometimes. If you can’t help writing, then write. Write all the time. And always read. Despite my pathologies and rages, I loved to read. In the streets. When I was homeless. In jail. I never stopped reading. And, of course, I still read in this calm family home environment. Reading has been the one constant. Beyond that you must never give up. Persistence is the true test of shamans and madmen. Do it no matter what. No matter what obstacles and sacrifices exists. It shows in the work. Those who breathe in and exhale words, who can’t live without them, can’t help but write life-affirming work (no matter how dark). You write even when it seems the world says no. In every no, there’s curled up a universe of yeses. The only art that matters is the art that is not supposed to be there.
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New Year, New Ideas

This has been quite a year: War in Iraq continued with US casualties passing the 2,000 mark (more than 840 killed this year alone); members of the Bush Administration faced indictments in the CIA outing case; Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf States, exposing the insecurities in our Homeland Security system; accusations of torture were leveled against the Bush Administration (their main response: arguing the fine points of what constitutes “torture”); immigration issues became highly polarized with Minutemen on the border and members of Congress trying to make illegal immigration a felony and putting forth a multi-million dollar border fence; and revelations that domestic wire-tapping and surveillance went beyond possible “terrorists” to those who oppose the war and others not favored by the Administration (even former Black Panthers, although they were already targeted in the 1970s).

It looks like, as the saying goes, “we’re going to hell in a hand basket” (not sure what that actually means, but it sounds about right).

However, there is some good news.

There is a growing awareness and unity among people in the US as well as the world against globalization, war, the death penalty, and poverty. All these became major concerns of the media, entertainers, and an increasing multitude. It appears that previously marginalized issues and ideas are now moving center stage.

While there’s darkness in the body politic, there is also an expanding conversation about where we go as a people. Included in this is how we achieve a world we know can be just, humane, peaceful, cooperative, balanced, and healthy? Words, by the way, you will seldom, if ever, hear from Republicans or the Bush Administration.

The right wing in this country long ago declared a war for the “hearts and minds” of the American people. They have much on their side—wealth, most of the media, fundamentalist Christians (not all, however), and their reliance on people’s fears and uncertainties.

Some of these conservative warriors were around in the 1960s and 1970s, and much of their ire seems to be directed at the last structural reforms in government (around civil rights and the rights of women). They held a grudge since then and are now getting their payback. That this is indicative of mental instability is another matter—or that their “scorched earth” tactics ends up destroying civil liberties, national unity, and real lasting peace for everyone (even their own children).

Their real opposition today, however, is not liberals—they were ideologically defeated when “reforms” could no longer meet the basic needs of the people. No, the very nature of the system they hold sacred will do them in. Capitalism has reached critical limits in its ability to expand and to find new exploitable markets (although it keeps trying). Even oil is finite and getting closer to being exhausted. War, lies, corporate greed, scrambling for power (or cover as the indictments keep coming) is now par for the course for the most powerful and wealthiest in the land.

The façade of social decency, civil discourse, democracy, and honesty has been slipping away as the most fascist elements in this country prepare their rule (summed up as the unity of capitalists and the government, but not the people).

Today more people are impoverished than ever before—while the richest share in the most obscene waste and extravagance (when poor people in the hood rap about “bling bling” and Bentleys, where else is there to go?).

So as the New Year dawns, let our hearts and minds and creative powers flourish as we collectively challenge the thieves, liars, and death-dealers.

We have to imagine another way to go, to envision a world where science removes disease, poverty, and cultural waste; where people are politically, economically, and spiritually sovereign; and where the world’s vast socially-produced wealth is distributed on the basis of need, not just to those who can pay for it.

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War, Torture, and now Border Fences

So the Republicans in the House want to make illegal immigration a felony—and to build a 700-mile fence on the Mexican border. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. But consider the source: These are the same fools who most ardently supported Bush’s war in Iraq without real evidence (including backing the Patriot Acts’ most insidious provisions); they’re the same ones who failed the people of the Gulf States when Hurricane Katrina swept through there; they’re the same ones who have enriched their corporate friends (Halliburton and the oil companies never had it so good)—but moreover, they’re helping turn the US government into the administrative arm of the capitalist class.

Since the Republican’s control of the White House, the Supreme Court, and most of Congress, we’ve seen our liberties erode, our economy throw more people into poverty, and our government deeper in collusion with the most powerful corporations. Now supposedly alien concepts like “torture,” “voter fraud,” “illegal wire tapping” and “partisan corruption” (Delay and others) are linked to this country (the US always had these, but they were never part of the national debate as they are now).

And they also want to make felons out of people who just want to live? To make a fence that will cost billions that should go instead to housing, healthcare, jobs, and real security (economic as well as from natural or man-made disasters)?

As Bush once said, “Fool me once, shame on me…uh, fool me twice... uh, and you’ll never fool me again”—something like that.

Actually the saying is: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

How long are we going to be snowed over by these narrow-minded, incompetent, and callous people? And, still, they come back with more inane ideas and debacles (I must say they’re persistent).

Enough already.

Of course, I’m not saying the Democrats are doing any better (remember, 30 House Democrats voted for the latest immigration bill). They have no real challenges or meaningful responses to Empire, war, economic polarity, and racist and mean-spirited border policies. Both Republicans and Democrats are trapped in the past—the Democrats for the most part are in the New Deal era; the Republicans, unfortunately, are back there in the 19th century.

Who’s got a vision for our future? A vision that does not require war, fences, dividing the country (we are more divided now than anytime since the Civil War). Who’s got a vision based on cooperation and laying the economic, political, and cultural foundation for the full and healthy development of everyone?

Who’s got the vision that utilizes the massive social energy of people—our greatest resource—and the most advanced technology ever known to humanity to better our lives, our connections, and our world?

I heard a Republican once say that the border fence was to keep the “third world” from coming to our country. He forgets that we already have a “third world” here—parts of the de-industrialized Midwest and much of the South; inner-city LA, Chicago or New York City; and just about any rural hamlet in the country. We helped defraud and exploit most of the world’s resources and labor—now we don’t want the people who have paid the price for this from coming over to our shores?

What about consequences? Oh, these Republicans are gung ho about the death penalty; three strikes and you’re out; and having poor people suffer just for being poor—but not about their own crimes?

This situation is, as Malcolm X prophetically and truthfully once said, “the chickens coming home to roost.”

Only these “chickens” are not our enemies. They are not terrorists. They are human beings, like us, wanting to feed their families. As long as the extreme inequalities exist between the United States and Mexico (and the rest of the so-called third world) you will have people trying to come over (the 10 million Mexican undocumented and legal residents in the US make more money than all of the close to 100 million still in Mexico).

Enough already.

The Republicans and Democrats do not represent our interests—as poor and working people; as families with mouths to feed; as they ones who labor at the lowest levels of economic life and keep this economy going (despite never getting enough to cover the basic needs).

We have more in common with Mexicans, Central Americans and others who have had to come to this country to survive than we do with Halliburton, Bush, Cheney, DeLay or any of the other Republicans (and most of the Democrats) running this government.

The real con is thinking that these fools have the same interests as we do.

The real shame is having a significant portion of Americans falling for their schemes, their lies, and the deep mess they’ve put us all in.
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It's Important--that's why Tookie's Death is Still Being Debated

These past couple of days, I've taken part in some Internet debates on the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. Here I present some of my responses.

One person claimed that Tookie was no hero--that he deserved to die because he was found guilty of murdering four people in cold blood. And if he was a real gangster, he should have "taken it like a man" and accepted the death sentence. This is what I wrote:

Okay, let's say Tookie was no hero. That he was a low-down gangster bum. Maybe Tookie "deserved" to die. He may have played everyone. But we shouldn't have anything to do with killing him. Not as a people, a conscious, alive and moral community with standards that should be higher than Tookie's or his victims (most victims want payback). If he was in the streets of LA instead of prison some rival gang member might have done him him. But why did it have to be us?

Now, I don't happen to think that about Tookie. But from the gangster view point, he should have "accepted his fate." He's supposed to do and die and not cry. Who the hell needs that? I've known countless homies and other vatos who've lived by that. What a waste.

The complexity of this issue, like any other, has to find a clear line of march regardless of the difficulties. Some stand with killing him. I stand with that's not for us to decide.

We're either in the life business or the killing business.

You want a hero? There's nothing heroic in having the full power of the state kill a man. Nothing. It's more heroic, believe me, to want to kill, to have so much pain and hate, to want revenge, and then decide, after the most wrenching battle with oneself, that there's got to be another way to go.

Violence is the closing of our imaginations. Tookie could have taught our kids there's another way to imagine life, even if you've done terrible things. That even in prison, you can do some good (we have enough of our brothers and sisters in prison, wasting away. Let them do some good).

Remember, he was the one leading Crip who turned against the gang life. Far more who continue the gang life from behind prison bars are still at it, doing damage as we speak. Nobody is stopping them. But even if we could, we can't kill them all (nor do I advocate we do that--many of them are also capable of helping our youngsters).

We have to imagine another way out.

Another person said, "I consider myself liberal and progressive... but I don't object to capital punishment for cold-blooded murder." Here's my response:

You have to maintain a certain assumption to believe we have the means, the desire, or the kind of system that can actually make a cold-blooded killer pay for his crimes. In South Central LA--as most poor communities--there are no CSI teams, no great forensics doctors sweating over details of evidence to make sure they get "the right person." That's TV, in fantasy land (although quite possible in wealthier communities).

Instead there are overworked police, detectives, and lots of pressure to "get somebody" versus getting the truth.

I know. My wife worked for the Cook County court system in Chicago for years--she quit, finally, after witnessing too often the injustice of poor black and brown people being shafted by mostly white judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in a complex and intricate system (and I know there are good white people out there who do care, many of whom stood by Tookie until the end).

I've also been a court advocate for a number of youth (including my own son, but also in a "Walking With" project I've been involved with for years) and an expert witness in some federal deportation cases. And with my own experiences as a youth in juvenile hall and adult jails in the East LA area I can tell you--if you're poor, you're screwed.

I was around LA in the 70s and early 80s (I moved to Chicago in 1985), when police went all out war with gangs, including Crips and Bloods. There were lots of murders, lots of arrests, but not necessarily the right arrest to the right murder. It's possible Tookie killed other people. We don't know (and I may have a strong assumption about this, but who cares). It's also possible in that kind of warfare climate that he was set up. Many thousands were set up. I know of killers walking the streets, while some other poor fool is in prison for life. I also know that Tookie was somebody the police wanted to get. Find the right murders, the right people to turn against him (his own accomplices, done by separating them, scaring them, even beating them if they have to--real "gang" loyalties fall quickly in many a police station), and some jailhouse informants (who would lie to save their own asses), and they got their man.

What's the more probable? He could have killed those people. But it's also probable in that climate that he was set up.

People get arrested for things they didn't do all the time. Remember, 120 men have been found innocent and taken off death rows around the country, despite prosecutors, jurors, police, and others swearing to their mothers that they were guilty.

President Bush once claimed he could sleep at night despite allowing the executions of many Texas death row inmates because he said the system was infallible and they were all guilty. Now there's proof that at least one Texas executed man, Ruben Cantu, killed at 26 for a murder he allegedly did at 17, has been found innocent.

But he's dead. "Sorry. We'll try harder next time."

No. If there were a real system of justice, with real equal access to science, dedicated detectives and resources, and no racism or class prejudice in the mix, you might say, just maybe, that real killers should be killed.

But a real system of justice wouldn't even go there.

There are 3,000 murders in LA that have not been solved--what about those victims? There was a time when the United States had 20,000 murders a year (significantly down over the past ten to 20 years). Yet slightly more than 1,000 people have been executed since 1976. What happened to all those other murders?

Can we possibly kill 20,000 a year for every murder committed?

How come there are Crips who have done more damage than Tookie, yet are still alive?

Maybe (here's something to think about), since Tookie was accused of killing non-black folk he needed to go. Maybe that was his downfall. Lynch a black man for daring to kill a white guy (and Asians as well). Most Crips who have killed have killed their own people. When was the last time one of them got executed?

There are statistics proving that blacks who murder outside their race have a greater chance of being executed than if they killed other blacks.

How much more do I have to go on?

No, we can't allow the state to kill in our name. I will fight for the healing. For the peace. For the imagination and the deep changes we need for real justice to exist. California, or any other state, don't kill for me.
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Tookie is Dead, but not His Spirit

This past weekend, several of us drove by San Quentin Prison on the way to and from a Mosaic Multicultural Foundation meeting (which included plans for “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” events in the Bay Area next year; I’ve done these events with some of the most troubled youth in LA, utilizing poetry, their voices, story, song, and community celebration).

Looking out the car window, I saw that people had not yet gathered for the daily vigil against the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. Silently, I said a prayer as we climbed onto the San Raphael Bridge, overlooking a wondrous sight of Bay waters, hills, and the amazing skyline of San Francisco in the distance.

I’ve been to San Quentin Prison a couple of times to read poetry, along with Mosaic teachers Michael Meade, Orland Bishop, and Jack Kornfield. The prisoners say looking at this sight from their cells may be more torturous than if they only had to stare at deserts or flowing cornfields.

The scenic beauty surrounding San Quentin contrasts sharply with the darkness inside the state’s only death row. As many had predicted, Governor Schwarzenegger denied clemency for Tookie, the redeemed former gang leader’s one last shot at life pulled out from under him. Early on Tuesday morning, December 13, after struggling for 35 minutes to find a vein, Tookie’s died of lethal injection.

I’ve received a myriad of responses to what I’ve written on my weblog and to what I've said on the radio (I did a 5:30 AM interview for New York City’s WBAI radio shortly after Tookie’s death). Most support my position that Tookie should not have been killed. A few didn’t... although they not only supported his death, they gloated about it (“boo hoo hoo for Tookie Williams,” one emailer wrote sarcastically).

In death penalty cases you see this kind of reversal all the time—the so-called “good” people sometimes exhibit the most callous, cold-blooded justifications (Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement denying Williams clemency was a rehash of the state’s case against Tookie as well as a right-wing diatribe against his politics).

It’s all hypocritical and rotten to the core of our being.

That same morning, I read how President Bush, responding to a question, declared that 30,000 Iraqi civilians and 2,140 US troops have been killed since the invasion of Iraq. Yes, the Crips have done massive lethal damage to communities all over the country, but how can this government claim it can stand above the mentality that drives most of these killings? Iraq didn’t even have involvement in the 9/11 massacre of the World Trade Tower (and the Bush Administration’s dance around this won’t change that basic truth).

I even read about a new book on the Skull & Bones "gang" that President Bush, his father, and his father before him all belonged to. In fact, Prescott Bush--Dubya's grandfather--reportedly dug out the skull of Apache resistance leader Geronimo that apparently is still missing and presumably in the possession of Skull & Bones.

We do a terrible disservice when we only designate poor people's (black, brown, and white) street organizations as "gangs." As you can see, there are many other types of gangs doing crazy things in this country, although they will never pay a price for this.

The reality is we as a people and a state squandered an opportunity. Faced with the dilemma of grieving crime victims and Tookie’s vast community support we failed to rise to the challenge of becoming compassionate, humane, imaginative, and to lay the groundwork for real healing. Instead we chose death. And the cycle continues.

Tookie’s struggle is not over. They’ve killed the person, but not the spirit. We will have to carry on. For peace, for justice, for real redemption (ours, not just Tookie’s), and real social change.

Yes, I agree with Tookie—let’s stop gang warfare. Only not just in the barrios and ghettos of the country. Let’s stop it from the Bush Administration, to Governor Schwarzenegger, to the local police. Let’s work to stop it all.
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Death and Justice in California

“Should we kill this Crip?” This was the main headline in the December 4 Los Angeles Times’ Current magazine, one of several about Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The subtitle was “He’s a murderer. He should die.”

Umm. This sounds as if an enemy Blood member could have written that. I mean what’s the difference between what a lethal gang member might do on the streets of LA and what the state of California plans to do on December 13? Yes, I’m sure anyone can enumerate various “superficial” differences, but essentially it’s the same emotion, the same pain, the same wound that says “Tookie Williams should die.”

Haven’t we had enough?

Another article had the headline: “Our Real Heroes Don’t Kill Black Kids.” But arguing for Williams to “pay” for what Crips and their wannabes have done is lynch mob mentality (even if the article was written by a black man). Williams is not killing “black kids.” Hyperbole when a man’s life is at stake is not a proper humane response (and to say that Williams may not have had the same level of humanity when he supposedly killed his victims does not justify any inhumanity on our part). Besides, the killing of blacks in our streets can’t be resolved by killing another black man.

I see a certain madness enveloping us when it comes to the death penalty and race. We become caught in a web of hate, revenge, fear, victimization—and now we can’t see straight. Even if Williams actually did what he was convicted of (the murder of four innocent people in particularly brutal armed robberies), what closure can anyone really get from his death?--except the most dark/revengeful kind that ends in blood. Isn’t that what drives gang members to acts of vengeange? Again, how do we rise above this if we get the law and the state to do the same thing?

Here are some facts we shouldn’t overlook: Most gang members are lost youth needing mentorship, guidance, resources for work and life, and strong, cohesive community. Most do not murder (with 125,000 gang members in LA, according to some official numbers, we’re not seeing 125,000 murders). While a couple hundred gang murders a year in LA is bad enough, can we really stop the madness by killing Williams? The fact is so-called gangs form in the spaces where community, family, schools, and real mentoring have stepped out.

Tookie’s death is not going to be a “lesson” to any potentially murderous gang kid with these persistently empty spaces in their lives.

Let's not forget also the possibility, as Williams and his lawyers have consistently stated, that the murders may have been done by someone else. The system is not infallible--no one should die when too many cracks and improprieties continue to condemn innocent people (more than 100 men have been released from death rows around the country these past few years).

On the other hand, someone of Tookie’s stature—something most of us will never have—can do more good if he turns against the violent, destructive aspects of this life and helps young people, black young people in particular, have a vision, a hope, and an imagination for another way to go.

This has more currency in the street where most of us have none. I’ll work with Tookie. Others will help. He’s not going to do this alone (many of us, including former gang members, have been doing this already for years). I wouldn’t just leave this up to Tookie—everyone needs to be positively and actively involved in the lives of our youth.

It’s time for us to be the heroes—forget Tookie’s alleged heroism. Remember, Williams had a longer road to travel to get to where he is now. It may seem harder for us, but I’m sure with real leadership, real caring, real humanity, we can get there as well.
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Our Troubled Youth Need to be Heard

The young men at Green Hill’s maximum security juvenile detention center waited patiently for the other units to come in and sit down to hear me speak. Earlier I had addressed another group of incarcerated youth at the Maple Lane maximum security youth center. I usually try to visit a prison or a youth facility during the many talks and readings I do around the country.

This time, professors and students, including from Mecha, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA had invited me to speak to a class and at a public event; they also arranged for me to address the incarcerated youth through an important intervention program called Gateways.

These facilities were two of the three groups of juvenile detainees (the other was from the Rancho San Antonio juvenile facility in the San Fernando Valley) that I addressed in November.

As usual, the young men were attentive, respectful and full of questions. Many had already read my true-life account of gang life, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. Others knew about my poetry. The racial mix of the groups were almost evenly divided between Mexicans/Latinos, African Americans and whites. Regardless of this, they were all interested to hear my story—and to add their stories to the continuing one of this country’s poor youth: broken families, little or no economic life, bad schools, little or no recreation, and wholesale social neglect. All faced deep crisis in spirit and vision. Most did not know what they were going to do with their lives. Yet, as always, they were smart, incisive, and capable of great imagination.

One of the young men I met was the nephew of former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, who was falsely incarcerated for 27 years in the California Penal System before he was exonerated and then released. Compare that to the Ku Klux Klan and other racists who killed civil rights workers and leaders in the South, mostly getting away with it (even after confessing, as the killers of Emmett Till did 40 years ago) or not facing their comeuppance until they were ripe old men.

These and other realities are not lost on these young men. They know because of race or their social class position they were going to be handed a raw deal. Opportunities were going to be few and highly competitive. They were not going to be adequately prepared for jobs or better schooling. If they couldn’t hold a decent job (in communities where unemployment can reach 50 to 70 percent), they would probably end up in prison.

After telling my story, I also conveyed to them the idea that they, too, have valuable lives. They, too, deserve chances to heal, to overcome their traumas and issues, and to contribute in a positive and meaningful manner to the world around them.

I told them how we don’t need anymore “raggedy” men in our communities—where there are too many men not fathering, not working, not learning, not going anywhere. We didn’t need anymore of their faces in our prisons. We needed them to stay strong, get skills, learn to be healthy and loving to their partners and children, and to give back from their own gifts and passions to enhance the streets they came from.

It’s a hard message to get, let alone agree to. But most of these visits usually end in some insightful communication and shared recognition of what needs to be done.

As a teenager stuck in the same kinds of facilities—I was in several East LA and West San Gabriel jails, Central Juvenile Hall, a continuation high school, and two adult jail facilities before I turned my life around in my late teens, I wish I had people talk to me. The few who did reach out meant so much. I was one of those who needed a lot of help, who had few people willing to help, but who finally made a decision to listen to them and make the most of their assistance.

We all need help. Particularly if you’re caught in the webs of gangs, drug addictions, violence, and the streets. But too many of us end up turning away from this help—we end up letting the few doors that open for us close shut (doors that usually take a long time to open again, if ever).

My talks have to be straight forward, clear-cut, and to the point. There can’t be any BS. Luckily most youth, particularly those behind bars, have a built-in BS meter. Being honest and open, knowledgeable and poetic, truly helps in reaching youngsters often designated as “unreachable.”

In November, I also got to speak in Chicago, including at an elementary school a junior college, and an international conference on “Gangs and Globalization” at downtown’s Northwestern University School of Law. Here we had researchers, former gang members, current gang members, youth organizers, and community advocates speak on how best to deal with the growth in gangs across the country. My friends, the long-time activists Tom Hayden and Bernardine Dorhn, invited me to be a keynote speaker.

Again, the issue is to be clear on the facts. To realize that more police, more prisons and more punishment only makes the situation on our streets more dangerous. We need real and comprehensive rehabilitation, real resources for work and schools, and real creative outlets for all our young people.

We need the social resources designated for the so-called gang problem to heal, help, and turn our youth around—not enshrine them in their pathologies and pains. Not warehouse them. And not forget they are human and capable of vital changes in their lives and the lives of their communities.

They'll be a price to pay no matter what we do. But the price we pay if we don’t change from punishment to redemption, from having youth face a vacant future to one filled with immense possibilities, will be worse than if we do.
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Don't Let Stanley "Tookie" Williams Die

To California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:

In the state of California, there are many wonderful people and accomplishments to commemorate and honor. But we are also a state rife with conflict, pain, and trauma. We need to be about healing and reconciliation. We need leadership that can help this state get through some of the terrible violence and sorrow we've had to deal with over the past thirty years.

There is too much death, too much hate, too much fear, too much trivializing "justice" by using it for revenge. Stanley "Tookie" Williams has done more to save lives these past few years then most people who are not in jail. He made many mistakes (although he contends he's innocent of the murders he was convicted of--something I don't think should be taken lightly). But what he has done to redeem his life, to make some value of his mistakes, is noteworthy as an example for anyone who may also be faced with such choices: we need more people to stand up and do the right thing.

And former gang members can reach present gang youth better than anyone--if we have examples of any who do, we should not diminish the power of such examples.

I am a former gang member, author of the best-selling memoir, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster). I know the importance of reflecting on and assessing one's life--and helping others do the same. I know the importance of rehabilitation and then allowing people to help others when they can.

Official revenge (which much of the death penalty is about) should not be sanctioned any longer. You cannot make right the murder of others by murdering the so-called culprits by so-called legal means. It only continues the cycle, the pain, the hate.

I ask of you to be as human as we want the most inhumane person to be. Our callousness as a community, a society, a state, contributes to the callousness in our streets. We need to feel. We need to care. We need to differentiate ourselves from the very real murders that destroys whole families and often communities. We need to be the more conflicted, complicated, and caring of all.

Please don't let Stanley "Tookie" Williams be killed on December 13, 2005. Please stand above the politics and pressures to not care, to not feel, to "be tough." We don't need no more tough guys (they're in our streets, in our culture, in our homes). We need the complicated but difficult humane response.

Tough enough to care, not to kill. Thank you for reading this.


Luis J. Rodriguez
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Time for New & Decent Border Policy

I recently read how workers from Mexico and Central America were brought into the Gulf States region to help clean up the mess and rebuild much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina. They were going to get very little pay, but they came. I also read how many of these workers were being shafted—employers leaving town just before payday, that kind of thing.

This has happened for decades to Mexican and other workers from poor and war-torn countries—there is real despicable and thieving exploitation going on in this country. It’s about time it was seen for what it was and rooted out.

Mexicans and Central Americans face what I call a “maddening ambivalence.” Jobs on this side of the border, truly what no American worker would do (or any worker should do), have been enticing millions to risk their homes, their families, and their lives. Thousands have already lost their lives on the border over the past twenty years just trying to get here (one of the most dangerous border regions in the world).

The vast majority don’t want to leave their beautiful lands and pueblos. But there are no jobs or agriculture left. They have to. Here are a few facts to ponder: Los Angeles has a GNP greater than all of Mexico. And the ten million Mexican Nationals working in the United States (undocumented as well as those with papers) make more money than the close to 100 million people still in Mexico.

Here’s another fact: Besides keeping many US communities strong (by their labor, but also their high levels of participation in local economies), they send billions of dollars to Mexico to build roads, schools, hospitals, farms, and housing to improve things for the families left behind.

Yet, these people are constantly under attack—by racists, the migra/police, as well as street thugs. They are often put down, humiliated, and yelled at. They are often beaten, robbed, and killed.

A few years ago in the Northeast San Fernando Valley (where I now live), an American woman ran over a Mexican national several times, cursing him for being in the street, and then taking off (she was later arrested, declared mentally ill, and let go). I sat in on one court case where a US-born gang member shot two undocumented teenagers, killing a 15-year-old girl and crippling a 16-year-old boy. I befriended the boy who was paralyzed from the neck down. Officials tried to deport him even as he lay in a hospital bed, unable to move, drink, or eat on his own. If they’d taken him to the border he would have died (considering that Mexico does not have the level of care he needed). I wrote about this case and soon a Catholic relief group and others took it upon themselves to help the kid—including convincing authorities to keep him in this country, and to provide the extraordinary care he needed (he was going to have a terribly diminished life as it was).

I remember another case in Illinois, where an American man kicked the life out of a Mexican national teenager who had just crashed into his car. The man was uninjured, but the boy was on the ground bleeding. The boy died.

These are some dramatic examples of stories I’ve heard all over the country—Mexicans and Central Americans (and Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latinos) are now everywhere; over the past 20 years, they have spread out across most states. They are not just relegated to the US Southwest or Northeast regions. I’ve been to places like Georgia, Idaho, and Nebraska with growing Latino populations. I spent ten weeks in North Carolina in early 2000 following a 600 percent rise in the Latino population there (working in highly toxic and difficult conditions in poultry farms, tobacco fields, sweat shops, and domestic labor).

I once talked to some 300 mostly Mayan Guatemalan migrants at a church in Delaware (I remember washing clothes at a nearby Laundromat and hearing the beautiful lilt of a Mayan tongue).

These people are at the bottom of the labor rungs. They are entering our schools and filling our jails. They are now under scrutiny by Minutemen-like groups on the border and by right-wing newscasters like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly.

A maddening ambivalence—an economy that needs such workers for jobs that don’t pay enough to survive on, then treating them as if they were dirt once they get here.

It would be one thing if this was just a matter of white people. I was once on a TV talk show in LA. In the green room was a Chinese immigrant woman with a strong accent who had come to talk about why we need to get rid of the “Mexican illegals.” Another time, for a story I was researching, I interviewed a number of Chicano heavily tattooed and unemployed gang members in one of East LA’s large housing projects. Most of their families were on welfare and they were living among some of the poorest residents in LA County. However, when asked what the number one problem they faced, one of them said forcibly, “it’s the damn Mexicans—we need to get rid of them!”

A maddening ambivalence—we know that recently arrived Mexicans have the lowest crime rates (in places where the majority is recent arrivals), pay taxes (sales and even work taxes), and work long hours without complaint. In cities like LA, where there are too many sterile and uninviting neighborhoods, they still walk the streets, sell their food and fruit bars in carts, fix up homes, and clean up streets. An Anglo man who recently contacted me said he loved living in his East LA apartment (probably the only white person on the block) because of the life, laughter, and joy the Mexicans exude (again, unlike the self-contained suburban housing developments, gated communities, and gentrified homes that growing numbers of Americans are occupying).

Yet, Mexicans and other Latinos are now the target of some of the most hateful racist speech and actions I’ve ever seen. Officially, the government has terrorized immigrant communities in raids, including against so-called immigrant street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, Sur Trese, Latin Kings, and others (these, by the way, were created in the United States—they did not originate in Mexico or Central America).

A new electronically-enhanced fence is being proposed along the US-Mexico border. And more US vigilantes (even California Governor Swarzenegger has invited them) are making plans to continue their anti-immigrant vigils on the border.

This is wrong. It’s divisive. And it’s against the best of this country’s ideals and values.

Because of the border—a contrived and man-made construct with a history in conquest, slavery, and exploitation—people are losing the sense God gave them.

Since I moved back to LA five years ago, I’ve been told four times to “go back to where I came from” (I was born in the United States of Mexican parents). This was mostly from whites who as a people have only been on this continent 500 years. My brown skin and those of many Mexicans and Central Americans indicate our indigenous roots—we’ve been on these lands for tens of thousands of years. But look how the border has turned things on its head—the brown-red people are now the “foreigners, aliens, and illegals.”

I’ve even been to Native American conferences (my native roots are Mexika and Raramuri) where I looked more native than most of the people in attendance. Although Native Americans are generally inviting to me, I’ve also been told (mostly by blue-eyed Indians) that I didn’t belong there. The border comes along and now Mexicans are not native? We have the largest traditional and full-blooded native populations in all of the Americas (there are 240 native languages still in existence there). And most Mexicans who don’t know their tribal roots because of conquest and colonialism have more indigenous blood than most US natives (not to discount the large numbers of Africans or Asians that have also been brought to Mexico).

In the LA area, there are now an estimated two million Mayans (who don’t even speak good Spanish, let alone English) from Mexico and Guatemala. This is slightly less than the two-and-a-half million Native Americans that exist in the United States (most of them mixed blood). And this does not count the millions of Mixtecos, Zapotecas, Yaquis, Purepechas, Huicholes, Raramuris, Coras, Pipils, and other tribes who have made the long trek from their ancient traditional lands.

Don’t tell me they are “immigrants.” They don’t even fit in any census box (they’re not Hispanics—neither are most of us with roots in Mexico and Central America).

We need to imagine a better immigration and border policy, one that is humane, decent, and not detrimental to Americans or Mexicans. Somehow, politicians don’t seem able to reach such imaginative levels. It’s about the vast resources and abundance inherent in the land, the people, and in a highly technolized economy.

But too often all we see is scarcity, competition, and our own narrow interests. This is only inherent in capitalism. It’s time we imagined another way to go.

The present alternative—hate, cheap pay, corporations pitting one set of workers against another, lives hurt and lost—is totally unacceptable. It’s also costlier in lives, money, and our own human integrity. I know we can do better.
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More Annoyed Than Frightened

“I did not really know what would happen. I didn’t feel especially frightened. I felt more annoyed than frightened.”—Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was given an honorable ceremony (including a viewing of her casket in Washington D.C., usually reserved for statesmen and military personnel) following her death on October 24, 2005. This is much deserved for her courageous stand against segregation and Jim Crow. The South and most of this country changed for the better following the valiant efforts of Rosa and the many other countless, and often unnamed, boycott leaders and participants during the 1950s and 1960s. We remember Rosa Park—and we should. But many fought this battle and won. It’s their blood, sweat, and tears we should also remember.

When I first heard news of Rosa’s death, I was waiting in the WOR-AM radio station late that Monday night in Manhattan for in-studio interview with Joey Reynolds. Later on the air, Joey, a long-time friend of justice and equality, mentioned Rosa’s name and his voice cracked. I, too, felt the emotion of knowing such a significant person of our time had passed on.

For many of us—African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, and poor white, progressive and revolutionary—for anyone who loved the dignity and vitality of this struggle, Rosa Parks will forever stand for the righteous acts of defiance that we must continue against class power, official racism, and economic & cultural depravity in our country.

Yes, much has changed; yes, we have a long way to go.

This past weekend, I took my 17-year-old son Ruben and his girlfriend Katrina to ride the subway from North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley to LA’s Union Station downtown. I wanted them to see a part of Los Angeles that most people don’t see—or even know exists.

From the Union Station, we went through Chinatown with its many shops, restaurants, and people. From there we walked down to Broadway, past First Street and further south where we hanged out in the crowded sidewalks and side streets where Mexicans and Central Americans shop, talk, eat, hang out, and just enjoy their day.

We walked through part of the Garment District, reminder of any major city in Latin America where people sold their wares. Then we walked further east to the edges of Skid Row—the country’s largest enclave of homeless people (the LA area now has more homeless people than any other U.S. city).

I was homeless in downtown LA one summer in my teens—living on the street, using heroin, sleeping in alleys, alcoves, all-night movie theaters, and churches (in the days when they used to leave their doors opened). During the day the public library was my main sanctuary. Over the years, long after I had stabilized myself with jobs, writing, political work, and family, I revisited these streets in my work among the homeless here and in Chicago, doing poetry workshops and readings, in the 1980s and 1990s.

That Sunday when we walked through Skid Row there were still vestiges of tents and carton boxes on the sidewalks (many more pop up as you go deeper into the Row). From where we walked, Los Angeles and 5th streets, the world became darker and foreboding. I saw a lot more Mexicans and Central Americans on the sidewalks than I had seen before (although the majority of the homeless on Skid Row are still African Americans).

One row of tents and boxes was along a parking lot fence, shadowed by the skyscrapers with banks, offices, condominiums, and oil companies. Ruben and Katrina quickly grasped the dramatic contrast—which makes this US-bred poverty sometimes feel worse than in places like Calcutta.

I admired how these smart and beautiful young people also had the heart to understand that this reality should not exist in our city, our state, our country (or in the world, for that matter).

This image of extreme wealth and extreme poverty helped bring home the sobering lesson—a lesson Ruben and Katrina would probably not get in most schools—that we have to do more today to bring true justice, peace, and sanity to the world. This doesn’t mean that Rosa Parks lived and died in vain. Hardly. She was one of the shining beacons that carried many revolutionaries and activists through decades of struggle.

I told Ruben and Katrina not to be frightened of Skid Row. But, as Rosa said, they weren’t frightened as much as annoyed. It’s time more of us got annoyed enough to strategize, organize, create (sing, do poems, dance, make music, and more) to help remove the façade of freedom and equality that covers the face of this country.

Beneath the root is our real humanity, our real heart, our real consciousness to truly make right what Rosa Parks began to do when she refused to sit on the back of that bus fifty years ago.

Let’s keep the fight going—although we may as well be smarter, wiser, more imaginative, passion-filled, with vision and deeper language. That’s the best way to truly honor Rosa Parks.
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