i have been against the death penalty since i was 16 years old. this heightened awareness of the unjust and ineffectual nature of capital punishment was born through my participation in an Alternatives to Violence course taught by journalist and activist, Coleman McCarthy, at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Washington, DC back in 1990. i am thankful for the time he took to open us up and strengthen our foundation in an inherent love for humanity - a love we all share when we are small; one that gets chipped away as we age, walking through this culture of violence and retribution.
however, it wasn't until i had to face the intense fall out of the criminal justice system within my own family that i really understood the dire and varied consequences of our system of (in)justice. my wake up call arrived strong as a knife wound to my heart back in 2003, when the father of my children went to jail. i won't detail the how and why, except to say that he was one of many of our brothers and sisters who, having less than adequate resources to heal their wounds, find themselves seeking community and affirmation in all the wrong places. he lost his own freedom to the ravenous american dream that calls out to many and eats folk alive when they can't get well fast enough. the prison system is where many land. rehabilitation from the dis-ease that places folk in prison comes on a wing and a prayer. countless people fall off that wing; an abyss awaits.
my youngest daughter suffered acutely from this loss. she was only 3 years old, and the trauma was more than her young mind could understand. it was my job to heal her, as i was healing myself. in that process, she began acting out in school. she became a student labeled as a problem, and each time she rebelled against the teachers, frustrated when they could not understand her pain, she lashed out. the teachers became afraid of her. she was suspended repeatedly. i became fearful and consented to having her tested. she was diagnosed as an emotionally disturbed child with a dangerous lack of respect for authority. an independent educational plan was developed for her, one that included occupational therapy and special time for her to be removed from the general population of the classroom. the goal was for her to get right and become a happy girl child, one without scar tissue and scowl. but the independent education plan did not work. she could not be trained out of her trauma, at least not fast enough for school authorities. her suspensions (at ages 3-4) continued, and eventually, the school counselor called me in and told me that she needed to be removed from the school, placed in a special school for special children, and MEDICATED - a prison for her mind and body awaited.
having grown up in a family accustomed to mental illness and the slippery road of western science's cure for it all, i resisted the counselor's advice with the quickness. i knew that when my child was loved unconditionally, when she was not feared, when she was given the space to translate her trauma in creative ways (ways that took more patience and understanding than her teachers could afford), she was able to rise and excel. i immediately withdrew her from the school, placed her in a school staffed by elder black women who better understood her language, and had her re-evaluated. this time, no issue was found. and i realized that she simply needed a different type of educational institution and support system in order to thrive.
how many of our children have not been so lucky? how many of them have gone from being innocent children with troubles to students labeled as potential criminals, medicated and/or funneled into an early culture of discipline that creates a predisposition toward joining the multitudes of youth and adults fueling the prison industrial complex?
at 13 years old, my daughter holds a 98.7 cumulative average in school. she has taught herself to play the piano. she is one of the most emotionally mature people i know, displaying empathy and compassion for people in ways that adults have trouble harnessing. together, we healed from the trauma of losing a family member to the criminal justice system.
though her father did make it out, the truth of how the system can break folk down, creating losses that fall like dominoes, became a truth i knew too well. her father did not succumb to the death penalty. but just the sting of the justice system's less than rehabilitative culture was enough to keep me focused on promoting awareness and action against the prison industrial complex in my daily walk as an educator, artist, and mother.
in 2006, i was invited to attend Harry Belafonte's gathering for justice at the Onondaga reservation in up state new york by a dear childhood friend and activist, Luis Cardona (i will always be thankful to Luis for this; it helped to heal me from the stigma). during that gathering, we dedicated ourselves further to fighting the pipeline from schools to prison and the prison industrial complex. i was struck by the numbers of people dedicated to the fight; i was in awe of the deep sense of love, humanity, and communal responsibility ripe and over-flowing in that space. i took that collective energy back home with me, working its mission into my writing and curricula for the students i was then teaching at Howard University. i was repeatedly saddened when i realized how many people did not have the language to understand what was happening to our brothers and sisters and families as a result of the war against drugs and the criminal justice system's plague unleashed on our communities. though most of us have been touched by the prison industrial complex in some way, many feel that we have no right to resist its existence. the powers that be wear such heavy boots that calls for change and abolition seem pointless and naive. but when spaces for dialogue are created, so many gain the courage, awareness and energy to consider new possibilities.
in the face of the pending execution of brother Troy Davis, i return to these thoughts. and though i am deeply saddened by the system's failure to stay his execution, i am encouraged by the masses of people who have signed petitions, protested, and placed phone calls on his behalf. such an outpouring of love and solidarity gives me hope. this crisis has also helped to educate many people about the global fight against the culture of violence, of which the death penalty, the prison industrial complex, and the pipe line from schools to prison are insidious parts of a deathly whole.
i pray that we continue mobilizing, organizing, and educating around these issues. i pray that a radical love ethic gains greater sustainability through us all. i pray that we remain awake and resilient. and i send light to Troy Davis and his family, the many families caught up in the culture of violence here and abroad. may we all walk forward with greater strength and purpose.
carry on. carry light.