Exile Nation: Chapter Three, "The Sweet Moline" (Pt.9)
August 26, 2005
“L’il Mo” Beecham dropped by my cell late last night to holla.’
“You know we meant that shit we was talkin’ this monin.’ On the real, Joe. It aint no joke out there.”
Earlier that morning (frighteningly earlier, as in 3:00am) while we were on our work shift in the Dietary, L’il Mo and Church and I were talking about gang life and selling drugs. L’il Mo said something about his “enemies,” so I asked him who his enemies were. In order, he explained, first were rival gang members, second the police, and third, people in his community who turned them in to the police.
I proposed to them that the system was their enemy, and that the system was enforced by the police, the politicians, and the ministers in their communities, who in turn were all controlled by the money people, the corporations and the banks. Neither of them said much, but it was clear they were turning it over in their heads. Their worldview existed at block level -- neighborhood block and cellblock -- but they seemed open to considering forces beyond the scope of their current level of consciousness.
I then proposed that when they killed each other -- “thinned the herd” was how I put it -- they were playing right into system’s agenda, and were, in essence, doing the system’s dirty work for it, which was to keep their communities fractured and desperate. Then I rolled out “divide and rule” and they seemed to go with it. At the very least they admitted they spent most of their time worried about what rival gang members are up to, and the rest of it worrying about money.
Then I made what turned out to be a colossal blunder, even though I stand by what I said. I told them that they needed to “consider loving their enemies,” particularly those most like themselves. L’il Mo said I was crazy.
“When a nigga shootin’ at you, Joe, they yo enemy fo’ sho.’ How am I ever supposed to trust a muthfucka who shot at me?”
I couldn’t argue with his logic, and the circumstances were lamentable. Still, I told him that I believed things could change, they could be transcended. Sure, there is a history of hatred and conflict between peoples, internally and externally, but I argued it is not our natural state and we retain the capacity to resolve conflicts. It would, however, require significant changes to the system, if not the abolition of the system altogether.
At that point, I think I lost them.
So when L’il Mo came back later that night, it was to make sure I understood that the situation was dire for them out there, a real matter of life and death. I told him I got that part, that life didn’t offer them many choices, but there still were choices, even if limited ones, and some of them were fundamental to their continued existence. They may at times be difficult, even dangerous or perilous choices, but there was a way through them, if he wanted it enough. He seemed, tacitly, to agree.
“Don’t you want to get out,” I asked him?
“Sho’ do, but the shit aint easy. I been in the gang since I was nine years old, Joe. My uncles are high-ranking chiefs…generals, and shit…I aint got much of a choice.”
“If you could do anything you wanted with your life, what would it be?”
“I’d go to college, and learn about the world beyond the South Side of Chicago.”
Regular people would probably be shocked at how often these young men defy the stereotypes society tries to foist on them. This is not to say that there aren’t bad people out there. Many of them are just straight up punks and thugs, and quite a few of them belong in prison. But there is one reality that cuts right through the middle of them all: gang life is an attractive cultural and economic alternative to a life of soul-crushing, dead-end, wage-slave poverty. And once you’re in, you don’t get out. No pension and gold watch for these cats, they’re lucky to escape with their lives.
I asked L’il Mo what it would take for him to get out.
“Money,” he said without missing a beat, then laughed as if to convey the obviousness of it.
“What do you spend your money on,” I asked him?
It was the usual list: clothes, car, jewelry, weed, night clubs. Everything promoted in Vibe and Source and on B.E.T.
I began to explain, with an ear towards brevity, how the fundamental aim of consumer capitalism is to drain your disposable income all the while making you feel good about it. I explained how it was a measure of social control, and how brand loyalty was entirely manufactured by preying upon your deepest fears and insecurities, that corporations consciously marketed status by equating material goods with personal success. So long as he and millions of black youth like him spent their money -- their hustle -- on consumer goods instead of saving it or investing it in property and real wealth, they would never rise above their circumstances.
I then explained that this was in no way limited to people like him, that it was endemic across the whole culture. In fact, in many ways the so-called affluent white culture was far worse off, because they were living beyond their means on credit and inflated mortgages. In this regard, they were de facto debt slaves (he dug that one).
“Consumerism does not discriminate by race or class,” I said. “In fact, it exploits both.”
“How you see that?”
“When you buy all that gangsta shit, you make yourself a target. To the police, to other gang members. It’s like you’re walking around with a big sign on your chest that says, look at me, I’m a drug dealer!”
“That’s the point, yo. You gotta get yo respect. Can’t look like you aint got no ends, you get punked.”
I asked him if he had ever seen The Godfather. Stupid question. He knew it almost better than me.
“Well, the reason the old mob bosses were able to hold on to power for so long was because they didn’t flaunt their money. They didn’t look like gangsters, they looked like little old Italian shopkeepers. You couldn’t pick them out of a crowd.”
He hadn’t ever heard of John Gotti, so the whole “Dapper Don” thing would have been lost on him, but I tried to explain that once the mob started wanting notoriety, they got noticed, and it fucked their shit up (of course, grossly simplifying the history of the Italian mafia in order to make a point, omitting the role in their eventual downfall of heroin and cocaine, RICO, their past collusions with the CIA, their blood feud with the Kennedys, and competition from other mafias).
“If you keep a low profile and save your money, one day you could walk away from all that shit.”
He seemed to be seriously thinking about it. But then he shook his head and mumbled, “But there are Stones everywhere,” referring to his gang, the Blackstone Rangers. “Somebody will recognize me somewhere, someday. And when they do…” He cocked his hand like a gun and put it to the side of my head and pressed hard and went “BLAM!”
I asked him what would happen if all the gangs got together, like the five mafia families did years ago, and decided on a truce and an equal division of territory and profits. He laughed and said, “aint never gonna happen.”
He cracked a knowing smile tinged with a certain resignation. “Cause these niggaz too greedy, and it only takes one mufucka to ruin the whole lick.”
I learned today that Krause and the Klansman got split up. Apparently they had a few more dramas after I left. Big surprise. So…dig this…Krause now has two Black cellies, and The Klansman was moved to another housing unit and put into a four-man with three brothers.
Karma sure is a wonderful and silly creature.
August 27, 2005
“People say they don’t care about politics; they’re not involved or don’t want to get involved, but they are. Their involvement just masquerades as indifference or inattention. It is the silent acquiescence of the millions that supports the system. When you don’t oppose a system, you’re silence becomes approval, for it does nothing to interrupt the system. People use all sorts of excuses for their indifference. They even appeal to God as a shorthand route for supporting the status quo. They talk about law and order, but look at the system, look at the present social ‘order’ of society. Do you see God? Do you see law and order? There is nothing but disorder, and instead of law, there is only the illusion of security. It is an illusion because it is built on a long history of injustices: racism, criminality, and the enslavement and genocide of millions. Many people say it is insane to resist the system, but actually, it is insane not to.”
--Mumia Abu Jamal, Death Blossoms.
The last two weeks have been creeping along so slowly that I’ve come to see how the stress and anticipation of the days ticking off has actually served to slow time down. It isn’t as bad as being on ice at Stateville, but it’s mental torture any way you look at it.
The days have settled into a structured tedium that never changes. With privacy at an established premium, I try to spend as much time alone as I can, and since I haven’t gotten a new cell mate yet, I am soaking up as much alone-in-my-cell time as I can get. It’s just as well because every time I leave the wing the White Power bloc gives me relentless shit. They make pigeon calls and shout threats and say stupid shit like, “the white man is the devil! Black power!” They have spread around the whole joint that I’m a “stoolie” (I can’t even believe they still use that term!) and told every white guy in here that I “hate white people.” Although absurd, I can live with that. What I can’t live with is that they have also told everyone that I’m a snitch working for I.A. [Internal Affairs] That kind of shit can get me killed! If I wasn’t a short timer, or if I was in another joint, they would have already shipped me on to someplace else. At times, the stress is unbearable.
I know this is part of the big mind fuck. They’re trying to get inside my head, get me to do something that somehow confirms their suspicions. They’re also trying to make me afraid…at all times. The reason it angers me so much is that I can’t handle ignorance. I try to be compassionate, I try to look at it objectively, but it’s almost impossible. If I say something like, “ignore them, they don’t know any better,” then this other voice immediately pipes in and says, “you aint no better than them, you’re all convicts.” But in my heart I know I am different. And I know too that they are afraid, and that is what helps keep them ignorant. It keeps them from seeing what is right. And as there are so few situations where something can be seen as inherently right, it is here that we have to make a stand. Dr. King once said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right." This has been the guiding principle of my life. You gotz ta keep it real.
I don’t know if I will ever come to understand what is at the root of this particular sickness that pervades humanity. I can only be what I am and do what my conscience compels me to do. Is that revolutionary? I don’t know. I suppose when your very existence challenges the status quo, and there are high enough stakes, then you will always be seen as revolutionary. But it is also revolutionary to speak truth in a culture awash in lies that has lost its ability to tell the difference. Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages: First it is ridiculed, next it is violently opposed, and finally it is accepted as being self-evident.” What this means is that most of the time people will not agree with you, and you may not be the most popular person in the room. And usually by the time that the truth becomes self-evident to the greater body, the damage to the messenger has already been done.
Still…how can I be anything else but what I am? It’s been getting me into trouble since the first moment I could move myself from point A to point B. The bulk of the people I have known throughout my life have never understood me, and I’ve rarely fit in anywhere. I’ve always questioned why things were the way they were rather than just accepting them as is because someone told me to. More often the response to me has been hostile, even violent. The few I have reached I have managed to affect profoundly, sometimes positively, sometimes not. I never seem to do anything in moderation.
Yet each awakened mind I encounter as I stumble through life helps me see that much more that there is hope out there, and that I’m not condemned to a miserable lonely life so long as I offer a penance of peace and compassion, patience and understanding. I know I have years of karma to rebalance, years of misguided selfishness to atone for. My biggest struggle will be learning how to be at peace with myself. If I can right a wrong, my existence is not in vain. If I can learn to accept myself, there is no telling what I can do. Prison puts a cloud around you, but there is a way to blow it off. I guess I’ll have to figure out how.
For so many years all I sought was validation for my ideas, and nearly all the time I got the blank stare, or was told to talk to the hand. Nearly all the limited success I have experienced was because people were attracted to my energy, but rarely did they understand my point of view. I always took it as a sign of rejection that the established order tried to label me “extreme” or “radical” or “dysfunctional.” I simply couldn’t see how they didn’t see the same paradoxes and hypocrisies that I did. I’ve always had the ability to see through illusions and recognize larger patterns. I knew I was right to question things, because I knew I was hearing lies. It made me a very angry, very wounded person, and I nearly killed myself over it.
Today it all makes sense, and prison is what finally made me see it clearly, in its most unadulterated form. After a lifetime of seeking approval, I realized that the clearest sign of my success was precisely in my being rejected. My validation is in my repudiation. If I am raising ire, then I am raising the right issues. Then I am speaking truth.
August 28, 2005
I finally got to sit down and talk with Carl, the “activist” that Yancy wanted me to meet. He had a hell of a story, but my first thought after hearing it, was what the fuck is Yancy thinking? Allow me to explain.
Carl Jones claimed to be serving a 20-piece for a series of arson fires and bombings of Arab-owned businesses on Chicago’s South Side during the mid 1990s. He tells a tale of how a frustrated citizen became a guerrilla vigilante, fueled by the anger he felt towards the Arab immigrant community, who he saw as invading his turf.
“It was after the first Gulf War, and all these Iraqis were coming here and the US government was giving them preferential immigration status and subsidies and tax incentives to come and open businesses in American cities. This was at a time when the inner-cities were all gutted. Most of the Black owned businesses had been extirpated, which left a surplus of cheap urban real estate for redevelopment. The Arabs who came followed the historical tradition of exploitation in the ghetto that had been in the hands of Jews and Asians before them. They opened delis and liquor stores and bought up residential property and became the new slumlords.”
According to Carl, what enraged him most was that his government was willing to give foreigners more advantages and assistance than it would give him. He says he began organizing an awareness campaign aimed at educating those in his community about the rise of Arab-owned businesses, and the need for black-owned businesses, “to keep our money in our neighborhood, instead of sending it to the Middle East.” He says there was a notable lack of interest amongst the residents.
It wasn’t just the economics of the issue that riled him. Carl claimed it was also the continuation of “the stinging slap of exploitation.” Despite the rhetorical flourishes, his delivery was dispassionate and soft-spoken. It was perhaps that which was turning out to be the most unsettling.
“These Arabs would gladly take our money, and then call us nigger and call the police if we stood outside their store with the merchandise we had just purchased from them. And every day, more of them would come, eliminating yet another opportunity for a black owned business to open.”
Carl claims to have appealed to his Alderman and other community leaders, who told him they supported his ideas, but in the end they did nothing to address the situation. This was what pushed him over the edge. Whatever it was, he soon decided that, without any legitimate force to remove these “racist Arab exploiters” from his neighborhood, he would have to become that force, even if that meant through the use of force.
He acknowledges “six bombings for which I was eventually prosecuted.” He claims to have been “captured” during a traffic stop when police discovered a large amount of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in his car and put him in a line up, where he was ID’d. He says he accepted a plea agreement of twenty years mere weeks before the passage of the 1996 Comprehensive Domestic Anti-Terrorism Act, created in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. He says he’s lucky. Had he been charged after this Act became law he would have been classified a domestic terrorist instead of an arsonist, and most likely would have been in a far worse place than The Sweet Moline, for a hell of a lot longer.
After serving nine years, he said, he has come full circle in his reflections on the choices he made. “I realized at some point that I targeted the wrong people. I shouldn’t have gone after the Arabs, I should have gone after the City of Chicago and the Federal government. Would I have bombed government buildings then? I think so. In looking for a justification for what I was doing, I had convinced myself, that it is the inherent responsibility of all citizens to rise up at times to overthrow a corrupt or tyrannical government. But this time has taught me that there are other ways to go about being effective.”
He still claims to be committed to the strengthening of the black community once he is released in 2007.
“Of course,” he said with a wink as a toothpick darted back and forth in his teeth, “it’s a very different world out there today. Do what I did these days, you gonna disappear down a hole and never be seen again.”
Klujtim Sulejmani (“Tim” for short), his cellmate, Ryan Boswell, and my new cellmate, Robert Cooper, all arrived on the most recent shipment from Stateville NRC filling the beds previously held by Ron Ron, J.T., and J.T.’s cellie, who was released the day after I arrived on C Wing.
Tim is Armenian, maybe 22 or 25, from the Chicago suburbs. He is in on a two-piece for multiple counts of forging prescriptions for painkillers, but he looks to be out in six months. He was pretty quiet and unassuming at first, mostly because he was one of the only other white guys on our cellblock, and he was clearly not the penitentiary type. He is frat boy through and through.
Eventually we started talking and got along pretty well. He's smart, went to college, and he reads. He knows a lot about American history, and has a particular understanding of how much the US has assisted Turkey following the formation of the Turkish republic after the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey is responsible for wiping out nearly a million and a half of his people in one of the most brutal (and brutally denied) genocides in recorded history.
It is clear Tim was comfortable and coddled out in the world. He has relatively affluent parents and doesn'tt seem to have too much to worry about. His family gives him a lot of commissary money, so he never leaves his cell. He eats all his meals there, and watches endless hours of TV on the small set he was able to purchase through the commissary. Yes, you can buy TVs. You can buy nearly anything you want or need, right there in the prison store. Commissary is an essential part of prison survival...if you have money.
Most inmates are limited to the $15-$30 a month they make from their work assignments, which amounts to a wage of $.50- $1.00 a day. This pittance permits them to barely afford the barest essentials, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, coffee, tobacco. Tim bought enough creature comforts to live like a king in the joint, his lock box is packed to the rim with processed pre-packaged food, toiletries, and magazines. He also unwittingly bought himself endless harassment and hustling from the inmates around him, who ae always trying to find a way to ride his gravy train a few miles down the line.
His cellmate Boswell was busted with a single bag of crack, and with a prior conviction on his record and no money for a lawyer, was forced to take a year. He is tall and lanky and mostly bald. He has a cartoonishly elongated oval shaped head and eyes and wears big, thick glasses that reinforce the ovality, making him look like a cross between a grown-up Urkel and Yrtle the Turtle. He is friendly and funny and absolutely obsessed with sex. In fact, he admitted that both of his convictions came about because he was “trickin’ off with hoes and forgot my common damn sense.”
Robert Cooper is another story altogether. This is his third time in prison, but you’d be hard pressed to understand how or why. Cooper is, by all estimation, totally harmless and the very definition of hapless. Old boy can't’t get much right. He is short and thick and bald, has lost every other tooth in his mouth, and has a prominent snaggletooth which draws all of your attention. All he cares about is cutting hair. He has a kind of aw shucks naïveté and passivity about him you don’t generally find in incarcerated brothers from the South Side. He is also unique in that he claimed not to use drugs, and he clearly was not involved in gang life.
He never really sufficiently explained what his first bit was for, but he claimed he was innocent of the charge. His second bit was for burglary and fraud, which he said was because of his ex-wife.
Cooper was going through a nasty divorce at the time. He said it began when his ex-wife “caught the ambition bug” and “wanted that suburban thing.”
“She didn’t like being thought of as ‘ghetto.’ She wanted to be ‘respectable people.’ And she thought the way you did that was to buy a lot of shit we didn’t need.”
Coop said he was never down with that program. He said he was happy living in his neighborhood and cutting hair at the barbershop where he worked.
They grew apart, and Coop met someone else, and eventually got her pregnant. Enraged, his ex-wife kicked him out. When he returned to their apartment to retrieve his belongings on some later day while his ex was at work, she filed home invasion charges against him. And when he used their credit card, she filed fraud charges. Both, apparently, were in her name. Despite understanding how hurt she must have felt, her response seems exceptionally vindictive, particularly to take it all the way through to a conviction. Unless, of course, Coop isn't’t telling me something, which is more than likely the case. It always is. No one ever comes fully clean. To anyone.
Coop was on parole from that second conviction when he claims he was stopped on the street and searched by police, who turned up two bottles of vodka in his backpack which the cops claimed had just been stolen from a local liquor store. Cooper swore up and down he just bought them on the street from two Mexican guys from the neighborhood (likely the real thieves) after leaving the barbershop where he worked. When they ran his ID and saw his record they didn’t buy his story or even bother to take him back to the store for the owner to ID him. He was hit with a retail theft charge, lost parole, and was sent back inside with another year added to his original sentence.
Now, either Coop lifted those bottles himself and got caught, which is stupid on a level I don’t think I have to actually state for you to understand, or he got a royal screw-job, because he’s an ex-con. The funny thing is, both scenarios are equally plausible. The record does matter. The minute anyone sees that, whether its the police or a prospective employer or landlord, you’re automatically in another category. With ex-offenders, guilt is assumed, regardless of circumstance. You disagree? Well, watch the news for a week. See how they treat suspects or "persons of interest" with a record, how they say “...and the suspect is a convicted felon...” In those cases, often times the only concern of the police is gathering as much proof as they can get, even if it needs to be manufactured; he's an ex-con, you know, he ain’t Michael Jordan, what difference does it make?
The real problem, though, is mandatory sentencing. That’s what Judge Epstein told me, “there’s nothing I can do, my hands are tied, the guidelines are clear.” I have a feeling that if judges had discretion to consider each case on its individual merit, instead of being forced to follow the mandatory guidelines that constrain them, they would have found much more productive uses for inmates like me and Cooper and Boswell, or Ron-Ron, or Sandy, or David, or Smitty, or Pee-Wee, etc etc. I’m even willing to defend Tim’s right to have treatment instead of prison, since his worst crime was forging a prescription. As it was, we were wasting everyone’s time and money, ours included, sitting around, taking up space, consuming resources.
The point is moot to Cooper. He took it all in stride, in a kind of shrugging, whatta ya gonna do manner. He's just happy he gets to spend his days cutting hair in the prison barbershop.
NEXT WEEK: Chapter three concludes with "Katrina's Unscheduled Visit," an essay about the experience of watching Hurricaine Katrina unfold while behind bars.
Read them now or visit the Exile Nation home page.
Exile Nation copyright© 2010 Charles Shaw. "The Sweet Moline" copyright © 2005, 2010 All rights reserved.
Charles Shaw's work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guerrilla News Network, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen's Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.
Charlesis the Director of the Exile Nation Unheard Voices Story Prioject Dictionaryof Ethical Politics, collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Trust. He is the former Editorial Director of Conscious Enlightenment Publishing (Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Whole Life Times, and Seattle's Conscious Choice), the founder and publisher of Newtopia,former head writer for the nationally syndicated radio show Reality Checks, former Senior Staff Writer for The Next American City, and a Contributing Editor for Worldchanging.(coming Spring 2010), and Editor of the
A long-time activist and former official for the Green Party of the US, he is a native of Chicago who lives on the West Coast...for now.