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Chain-Gang All-Stars

I became an abolitionist for real the first time I walked into a jail and sat down to talk about poetry with people who were incarcerated. They were teenagers--children--and carried charges ranging from truancy to rape of a child to murder. Some of them were guilty, and talked about it, how it felt, how angry they were at themselves, how angry they were at the world that they felt left them with no choice but use violence to try to solve impossible problems. I've seen a sixteen-year-old child retreat into silence because he rejects the entire concept of forgiveness; I've read his poems, raw as a wound.

I'd been an abolitionist before this, which is how I ended up volunteering to teach poetry workshops to kids on the inside, but. When you meet a human being face to face, you can't help but love them. And once you love someone in prison, you can't help but understand that prison is not justice. You take a kid who pulled a trigger and you torture him with isolation, and it solves nothing. There's the fifteen-year-old whose friend was being stabbed, repeatedly, by an adult man, and he's guilty, because he shot that adult man to get him off his friend, and he's also guilty because he's brown and an immigrant and has no parents and is too proud to grovel before the judge and promise he would never, ever again defend a friend with violence. There's the fifteen-year-old who is 6'2" and dark-skinned and broad-shouldered and who has always been treated like he's an adult thug, and then when he acts that way, when he holds a gun and holds up a convenience store and pulls the trigger, too--

The thing is, no one is as bad as the worst thing they've ever done. Both of those fifteen-year-olds were students who wrote poems and made jokes and talked about books. One of them liked YA romances, and I always wondered if he thought a lot about what it meant to be in prison from the age of fifteen to the age of who knows when. No teenage romances for him in real life. One of them wanted to be a rapper, and was honestly sort of good at it. Not great, not yet, but--

That feeling, of holding in your heart the truth of a person's violence at the same time that you hold the jokes they make and the dreams they dream and the skills they're working on improving, is the feeling I got from CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS. It's a profoundly evolutionary tension, and my great hope is that everyone who reads this book will feel it. You can't help but become an abolitionist, if you feel it.

And then, once you decide to abolish the prison industrial complex, definitely read anything by Mariame Kaba you can get your hands on. She's mentioned by name in the book's Acknowledgements, along with Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. If you've seen people talking about "Let this radicalize you," that's her.

Let this radicalize you.


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