There are moments in life when we are met with a choice, and how we choose either works to support a problem or hinder a problem. Most often those times will arise within a pivotal moment where important outcomes of a said decision are dependent on the choice/path you take. We are met with who we really are at these impasses, where we get to decide if who we are aligns with the choice we make, or the path we hope to take. It shows us where our priorities lie: Are they self-motivated? Do they advance me in the matrix? Or, is my own liberation deeply tied to the liberation of others? Do they support the systems that oppress us, or work to dismantle them by our daily acts of dissent?
I was met with such a moment this week, and it came to a head this morning. I received an email from my internship site director addressing what had been a clear divergence between us earlier in the week regarding police presence in the work I/we do. Tasked with hosting and organizing a wrap-up event for the children we serve, I proposed finding an age appropriate way to educate the children around systemic issues they are situated within and will be subject to going forward. I believe to empower the children they must know their audience; that knowledge and understanding are powerful tools of resistance. This conversation was suggested as a way to bring the families and children we serve into an intimate/safe space conversation around their feelings/traumas behind violence and the impact of violence in their communities. The site director refuted the idea, instead suggesting we make it a healing session for our underserved population’s relationship with police, by inviting a uniformed officer in. She proceeded to tell me I should be prepared to be at events and trainings with police presence or hosted in actual precincts—and how she had very strong ties to the carceral state more or less.
She further reiterated her stance in her email to me today, and questioned how our collaborative work could be generative, or not, going forward given our strongly differing beliefs and experiences. She literally said that it was clear the very constructs I am against (the carceral state) are the ones she supports and depends on in the community. Completion of this internship was very much needed for me to move forward in my career and life, and one I was highly passionate about knowing the importance of interventions at the youth level. However, I am not willing to compromise who I am, nor invalidate my entire lived experiences and bodies of academic work in order to complete something I do not align with.
We are entering a month dedicated to the bold women throughout history who resisted on behalf of all women today. Might I be firm in my own power and voice, so that our children and their children have the same force of strength to resist structures of dominance and the people/organizations doing their bidding. Our voices are our capacity. Our lived experiences are our power, knowledge and understanding. How we tell them is our wisdom, our culture, and the difference between whether or not we set those that come after us free. Our stories break the chains. Tell them.
What follows is my response:
“Thank you for your thoughtful email and your willingness to better understand my lens, very much shaped by my experiences rooted in state violence. First, let me speak to your concern over my Instagram response to a Black attorney, close friend, and native in this community, who equally stands with me on my resistance to invite police into the communities they ultimately do more harm to than protect. He responded to my post using the hashtag #nwa (referencing the rap group who were staunchly against police violence) to more pervasively say what I said in my response to his hashtag–“f*** the police”, which is the title to their song. Instagram is my social platform where I am free to express my feelings, beliefs, responses, and forms of activism as I feel they align with myself and larger societal issues. I have spent my entire academic career highlighting state violence as ongoing activism towards ending it. It is most evident you and I diverge on this particular topic, however I do feel differences are an opportunity for growth, on behalf of both parties.
When I came to you, I was unaware of two things–your strong ties to, and insistence on police presence within your organization or events, and the religious undertone I have witnessed in at least two of our five sessions so far. In one of our earliest meetings before we started with the kids, you were talking about Jennifer (who leads our yoga with the kids) and the religious aspect of yoga, when you specifically stated that we have to be careful about imposing on, or offending, anyone’s religious beliefs. I took that to mean you were mindful of interjecting any religious ideologies into the programming. Our very first speaker was a pastor who invited the kids to church. Yesterday, we had a speaker who literally told the kids, in the words of Steve Harvey, that “if they just ask God for the life they want, they can have it.”
I feel this is a clear path of disappointment/failure for the majority of them who will struggle going forward. You are disempowering a child when you tell them to place their faith and power in something outside of them. This is how I feel, and it is strongly what I believe. You are failing to tell them they will be met with challenges rooted in systemic oppressions, and that sometimes no matter what we do, or how hard we work, we will not get the life we want or deserve. While I understand your model is rooted in empowering the children, I ask that you look at that a little closer. Does your model serve to support the systems that oppress them, or empower them to know their audience and themselves so they can better navigate those systems and structures of dominance?
Second, regarding your close ties in the community involving police– Let me give you a clear outline of why I stand in staunch opposition regarding the need for their presence. My very first memory in life at two years old involves police and blue lights surrounding our house. My father had stabbed someone in self-defense in a bar fight. My second most vivid memory around the same age, involves him molesting me. I sat through his funeral last week and listened to the way they talked about him before he became him–his own traumas and suffering. He was a Vietnam vet, his father a WWII vet. He had a severe brain injury in a car accident before I was born related to drinking and driving after he had been honorably discharged with a bronze medal of courage. It finally hit me that all of the pain and suffering of my life, and the lives of the people who came before me, is deeply tied to the state violence that leaves a wake of trauma in its aftermath.
I realized that I had been doing scholarly work all these years to tie trauma to state violence, without a clear understanding myself of what I was doing until that day. The military, like the police, is an extension of the carceral state that seeks to enslave and exploit, decimate and destroy, not to protect the people but to preserve power. Not a single wealthy individual goes into the military or chooses to become a representative of the carceral state (police). These are people exploited based on socio-ecomonic status who are looking for job security, benefits and a way out. War vets and their families are deeply traumatized as a result.
At 14 years old, I was forced to write an explicit statement about my first sexual encounter with an older boy (outside of molestation) while being guided by male detectives, with no parent present, on the correct verbiage to explain the encounter for prosecution purposes. Imagine being a child, retraumatized by the police, and then the charges being dropped. I will never forget how dirty they made me feel or the burden of responsibility they left on me for something that happened to me. It angers me to this day.
Moving on, in 2003, as a displaced and vulnerable woman, a retired State trooper (40 years my senior) was soliciting me, abusing his power, making me a human trafficking victim at the hands of a representative of the “law”. This same man routinely referred to the Black employees getting off work down the street from his house as “niggers playing their loud nigger music”. This same man forcefully coerced me with money he had that I desperately needed, into un-nameable acts. In my traumatized state, I devised a plan to take his power. I felt rage for this man who represented every abuse of power I had experienced up to that point. For that rage, I sat in a jail cell for six months, solitary confinement for much of it. He went unpunished for his crimes, while I lost two of my children, the love of my life for 9 years, and have lived as a felon for the past 17 years, struggling as someone who is part of the most legally discriminated against group in the U.S. today. I have continued to bear that burden over the years on my actual body being forced into labor trafficking at times when no one would hire a felon. This is what we call state violence.
In 2007, the only other man I have ever loved deeply, was on a bike without his license and was bumped off by the police in a high-speed chase, simply because he was alluding to stop. No one blinked an eye, since he “broke the law” when he refused to stop. And anyone knows if you bump someone on a bike at any high speed, chances are they will die. Police kill people every day because they can. More specifically, Black bodies are criminalized by way of being black/brown. Sometimes they are literal deaths, and others they are daily metaphorical deaths.
Fast forward to October of 2018–the love of my life who spent 9 years in prison for helping me “rob” a racist, rapist, had a stroke from using heroin laced with fentanyl. He lies in a coma today as a vegetable, under the most inhumane state of existence, simply to help healthcare corporations rack in monies to support the racist capitalist state that broke him. He was by far and large the most intelligent man I have ever known. A superb human with a divine spirit. He was not a drug user before prison, nor did he have previous criminal charges outside of traffic tickets and driving without a license. He was awarded a Purple Heart in the Haitian War. He is and was a victim of state violence. So am I, and many others. But our response to trauma has been criminalized while the perpetrators of violence go on ignored.
Further, there is another current state trooper in Randolph County, recently retired from the military, who openly stated once that he refused to retire and let some “nigger” sign his exit papers (President Obama). He stayed 3 extra years past his 20-year mark just to wait on a White man to sign off on them. Sick. These are the people serving and “protecting” our streets and communities. These are the people with power and guns, who have zero respect for black and brown people.
Please understand, there are a host of people in Black communities who stand with me when we say keep the police out of their neighborhoods. I do not stand alone. They want organizations and leaders to stop inviting the police to the table so they can more easily surveil, exploit and control their communities. I do agree that the police and people doing work in marginalized communities need training around trauma-informed care. However, I will not and cannot, participate in any form of training/events tied to, or hosted by, the carceral state. While I respect your decisions for your organization, and the trust you place in police officers you call your friends, I do not wish to form that alliance or brush shoulders with them. It’s not personal against the police officers themselves, because I am well aware many are good humans subject to the mercy of the same white supremacist capitalist system that we are all enslaved under.
It gave me great pause to know and hear you suggest that my project wrap-up event bringing under-served families and children together for an intimate discussion about their lived experiences with violence involve a “uniformed officer” on site. Asking these communities to heal their relationships with the police is asking them to mend their relations with their abusers. Suggesting they need to know how to conduct themselves in the presence of authoritative figures is ignoring the state violence perpetrated thus far that fuels their distrust and fears, setting them up for a clear path to prison. It felt like you had very little understanding of the history behind the racial trauma and tension. Your lack of understanding can and will cause further harm by placing the burden for their lives and actual bodies on them, when it should be up to the state to stop killing them.
I respect and honor the work you have done thus far in serving your community. I know you have a big heart and every good intention. I am most certainly not belittling what you have done so far. Yet, I feel that you have less than a clear/whole picture of what is going on in these communities, as do the organizations you note, many of whom are extensions of the carceral state. The very problem in society is that we are so focused on events or certain behaviors, we miss the roots from where they stem. I wanted to help you be more responsive by at least highlighting that aspect in my wrap-up event, and you more or less shut it down and turned it into an invitation to the police.
While I am aware of your own personal struggles and where you place yourself within this work, I do not feel you would be nearly as willing to work in tandem with the police, or ask the communities/families you serve to do so, if you had ever been directly impacted by the violence they enact as representatives of the carceral state. I am happy to send you a couple of articles if you are willing to look beyond your own objectivities, including the one written by Dr. Jocelyn Lee Smith that I feel you may find quite informative.
I do feel we are at an impasse here and I myself, am struggling to know how useful I can be to the work you do when your work is evidently tied to the very organizations I have been negatively impacted by, and all my work thus far has set out to expose. My work is not to mend or heal my relationship to the state, nor ask of the other people it oppresses. I cannot be a party to that, as much as I love the children and want more than anything to provide something meaningful to their current experiences.”
Meanwhile, within the same past two weeks I have been faced with ongoing struggles regarding the deserved expungement of my felony record, and blatantly told by a lawyer the State would be uncooperative or supportive for the very purposes of keeping my hands tied, and keeping me positioned in the margins. I was only recently made aware that laws have changed that now make it possible for people to get that monkey off their backs, but there are many loopholes to that law that work to stop your climbing out of the grave they laid you in. But don’t worry, I can look forward to the same State calling on behalf of the thousands of dollars I am indebted for striving to rise above my circumstances and get the education they told me would change my life, the one they insist you have to get a job with a livable wage–if you happen across one that does not require background checks.
This is the work people. This is the struggle within the struggle. This a call for real healing and reconciliation. This is my cry, and the cry for so many. May we respond in kind.