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David Liddell and I share a past in the streets. I’m from Compton; he’s from Altadena, Calif. Like so many others we know, both outside and inside prison, our thoughts and morals were shaped by this history. 

Inside, there is time to reflect on where we came from. 

Liddell, 49 and serving a sentence of 50 years to life for a three-strikes case, is among my favorite interlocutors. He’s been incarcerated 19 years, and grew up in the same area as Rodney King. He was immersed in gang life.

In a mostly negative place, it is easy to spot the people among us who want to change and have sincerely done so — Liddell is one of them.  

The lure of the streets is strong. They exert on our mind a certain way of thinking that can lead us down a dangerous path. The below conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, seeks to warn young people about the turmoil that awaits them if they choose the path of the streets.

E.D. H.: What provoked you to love the streets? 

David: What provoked me to love the streets is very low self-esteem and having no understanding of what and how love works. My mom was overprotective of me due to her upbringing. Not knowing she was hampering my understanding of how to be confident during my upbringing, my mother tried to program me with America’s ideal that every child go to grade school, college and then work.

My character at that time didn’t correspond to that idea. So I struggled in a manner that attacked my self-esteem. I grew up under local kingpin ideals of Black communities. I gravitated towards any negative soul. I assumed, based on what I heard and saw, that the criminal life others lived was long-lasting and more exciting than my life. I didn’t realize it would subject me to negative people who shared the same problems as myself. I thought doing wrong to someone else for the sake of the streets was a sure way to feel the love I thought I lacked. I also started drinking and doing drugs, which altered my young perception of truth and lies, love and hate. 

E.D.H.: I’m going to sum up my perception of the same question I asked you in a few sentences. I love the streets the way I did because I never had a father. He was in prison my whole life and was in jail when I was still in my mother’s womb. My mother was abusive, neglectful, unfit to be a mother; put men and friends over her own children. That’s why I French-kissed the streets. 

What year and what age did you realize the streets didn’t love back?

David: At age 17, when I was in summer school, I was officially introduced to Islam, but I was knee-deep in an issue with people in my community from the rival gang. The gang I ran with was outnumbered, and I knew enough reputable people to switch sides, but I didn’t do it. I wanted to represent the gang I saw the dudes I once looked up to representing. 

I believe that because I didn’t take the opportunity to walk away and partake in Islam, I was later ambushed by a guy from the rival gang — twice in one day. When this situation took place, I didn’t go and get my homies or depend on them to fight my battles. It was then that I understood that I loved the streets and had no expectations of the streets saying “I love you” back. 

This was about the same time that Rodney King was beaten. He was from my community. Back then, confusion was a daily program for the youth. I understood that the outcome of dedicating myself to the streets would eventually lead to my death or incarceration, just like I was warned. The streets don’t know love, just deception. 

E.D.H.: I knew the streets didn’t love me back at 15 or 16, when my own homies was hating because I was being more violent than them in my up-and-coming days. That struck me as odd. Also, some talked behind my back and smiled in my face. I knew then the streets don’t love back.

What made you continue to love the streets after you knew it didn’t love back?

David: It goes back to low self-esteem and my purchasing a delusional truth. Because I was a small-stature little boy among a bunch of adult-sized aggressive teenagers, I didn’t have the confidence I should have had. My mind state was based on what my peers said about me, not my family. Kids with low self-esteem usually lower the next person’s self-esteem. So, you get a massive number of kids from the same area all lacking self-esteem. 

This is what makes us susceptible to being sold the games of the streets or, as I call it, the delusional truth. This means we bought into a lifestyle that consisted of drugs and alcohol, with rules of the street that apply only to those people who buy into it. Street rules depend on the person and their standing in the streets at that moment. This means actually nothing when soberly analyzed — it all becomes based on insanity. We all keep doing dumb things, expecting a smart reward. 

E.D.H.: Your last five sentences touched me. It is so true. I continued to love the streets when I knew for a fact they didn’t love back because I had nothing else to love. My mother didn’t love me back, and I never knew a father’s love. I learned violence, cheating and having a nasty mouth from my mother. I picked up stealing because she didn’t give me money. With those four qualities, the streets, regardless of loving me back, was where my loyalty lay. 

What advice would you give the youth of today who are starting to live what you are quitting?

David: Pause, listen and investigate: My three suggestions are the keys to [avoid] dying, ignorance and/or going to prison for life. 

The definition of pause is a break or suspension. When living a high-risk life, it’s imperative to always pause or suspend whatever action you are currently taking part in. Without the pause, in any lifestyle, you become unaware of what’s actually going on. It’s like allowing yourself to see a game opposed to being in the game. 

While pausing, it’s very important to listen to everything around you and pay attention to the words, context and characters involved. Listen a lot. Only then will you be able to understand the hypocrisy that you have involved yourself with. If you hear anything that makes you criticize the people you’re involved with, then you know you need to start correcting yourself. 

After pausing and listening, investigate totally what you see and hear from the people you are around. Oftentimes if you investigate with an open mind you will be confronted with why the lifestyle you chose is a no-win situation. If you want to be better, you need to do better, you need to know better. When it’s too late, the regret will feel like and become your day one.

E.D.H.: Good advice. Here’s what I’d say: Regardless of what anybody has done to you, or the pain and suffering they inflicted on you, it’s not your fault that these people were evil. Don’t lower your self-esteem or self-worth because of it. If you were too young to comprehend then, at least you know now. Stand on your own. Gangs are for cowards. Stand on your own two feet. Use protection for sex or catch HIV/AIDS. Pursue and follow your goals and dreams regardless of what anybody else thinks. When you die, only ten people will really cry at your funeral and really mourn your death. Remember there was never a statue made for a hater or critic. 

What would you change if you could rewind time as far as possible and amend your goals in life at an early age?

David: I would obtain patience. I would give up all drinking habits and drugs. I would investigate the very thing I claimed to love and was willing to put my life on the line for. I would change my attitude when I was confronted with constructive criticism. Change being stubborn and full of pride. Be a leader instead of following. Pursue all my far-fetched goals.

E.D.H.: I understand you very well. I would change my thinking and resist being so negative 24/7, as I had been since the second grade. Change being so violent and aggressive. Change being a womanizer. Change my nasty and disrespectful language. Pursue and follow all my goals and dreams that felt like a fairy tale. I would love myself and respect myself to the fullest. Never belittle myself or downplay myself again. Work out and take better care of my health. 

Great thing about life, we can start it all now.

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.

E.D.H. is a poet who was raised in Compton in Los Angeles. He is currently incarcerated in California. He has asked to be published under his pen name.