O. Smith is a contributing artist for Prison Journalism Project. He is an illustrative journalist, graphic artist and comic book creator. He created the above illustration to accompany this story by Marcus Henderson.
Tears fall from my eyes while I sit in this cramped prison cell in San Quentin. I’m surrounded by the coronavirus. I listen to the continuous emergency medical alarms, the faint coughs from a chorus of cells, and the PA system calls for temperature checks by the nurses covered from head-to-toe in PPE. This is a far cry from where the prison was months ago. From zero cases to a full-blown outbreak.
The tears that stain my face are not only because of the virus. I have watched from afar the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the countless other Black people who have been killed by police. I shook my head as they pepper sprayed peaceful protestors including children, and violently shoved an elderly man to the ground causing blood to run from his head. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters into the faces and testicles of protestors, possibly maiming them for life.
But we would never call our heroes and first responders monsters. That’s reserved for those of us who are incarcerated, even as decades have passed since we committed our crimes.
Some Americans seem to weigh property damage and looting more heavily than the Black lives that have been lost. When I saw a newspaper headline that read “Property Matters, Too,” I wasn’t surprised. The white establishment has always had an obsession with what they considered to be their property. The Civil War was fought to keep Black people as property of the Southern whites. They believed the Northern whites were “looting their property.”
Do our lives matter more when we are considered a commodity? Is this why the prison industrial complex is traded on the stock market?
Critics ask us Black people, “Why are you getting so upset when police are killing you but not as upset when it comes to Black on Black violence?”
The assumption that we don’t care is patently untrue. Black mothers and fathers have been calling on the youth to stop the violence for decades even while they lose their own. There have been numerous town hall meetings and brokered gang truces. The Black community cried for justice so much that it became hoarse. But no one was listening.
We got caught up in what we in prison refer to as post-traumatic urban survival syndrome — the trauma of dodging the police force daily, putting our hands on hot patrol car hoods and endless interrogations of where we’re going. We’re pushed against the wall and told to spread ‘em. Police put us in chokeholds and held us down with their knees on our necks long before George Floyd — and it’s still happening. Our skin color was probable cause enough.
Now add to this dynamic the Black community’s intersection with the dangerous street economics of pimps, drug dealers, and street gangs, addicts stealing bicycles, gang members robbing and beating us up, daily shootouts and police helicopters shining flood lights through our homes like we’re on the battlefield in Iraq. Have you ever witnessed your best friend sold for sex by their mother for drugs? Or the police dropping off drugs? We learned how to survive these harsh realities before the age of 10, and we’re told that our life expectancy is 25.
Most of the time, we are over prosecuted for our crimes — some of which would be chalked up to indiscretions if a white person was responsible. When other people violate us, we become invisible. They are free to go home and be with their families and friends. They are set free to terrorize our neighborhoods again.
Incarceration has taught me many things, including the fact that the pendulum swings both ways between reform and law and order. Crime is always the go-to political football. Everyone wants to feel safe. If a narrative of street chaos can be painted, it will be. Defunding the police or re-imagining policing will face an uphill battle. If crime rises in major cities across the nation, you can watch police budgets balloon rather than be cut.
This time, the voices of Black people appear to be gaining strength. Statues of white supremacy are coming down around the world. This landscape makeover is a good start. Next, legal statutes like California’s Three Strikes Law and Illinois’ Marsy’s Law must be torn down and thrown into the river. These laws disproportionately affect Black and Brown people with excessively long sentences and mass incarceration, denying second chances to rehabilitate and restore our communities.
My tears have not stopped, but now there are also tears of joy seeing the multicultural and racial diversity of the protestors. The youth are beginning to change the world. The illusions of equality have been pulled off, and there is no going back to business as usual. This is how we move America forward from the heartache and pain of the past and present.
And it’s coming from inside prison walls, too. Simply because we are incarcerated does not mean we’re not invested in our country and communities. Our families are out there. We want to make amends, and we want people to heal. We know the pain of destruction. So what will happen with our country after the November elections, now that so much distrust has been sown?
To survive this, things must change. For now, I’m trying to wipe away the tears. I’m happy to feel forward progress.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.