From the March-April 2020 issue of News & Letters
To successfully negotiate the transition from prison to society, there are social norms we former prisoners have to adapt to. Now every morning I board the bus to go to work. A variety of people get on the bus and immediately pull out their phones, burying themselves in whatever has their interest.
That prevents social interaction with the people around them. In general people move about as if nothing around them matters. For a former prisoner being held so many years in solitary confinement, an opportunity to talk to others, to try to find a new way out of our reality, is all important.
Many of these people are holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is evident because they fall asleep on the bus. I think: How does one begin a conversation that could lead to envisioning a different reality? It is a dilemma that has to be faced, if we are to survive as a human species.
PRISONERS HAVE TRANSFORMED REALITY
All people become human through their participation in society according to given social norms. Yet a tendency to entrench those norms can lock the mind, hinder thinking and produce subservient people. Many of us prisoners and former prisoners have an irrepressible desire to exercise our human capacities.
We changed our reality through participation in the California hunger strikes of 2011-13 against indeterminate solitary confinement. We experienced the power of changing our social norms. Long before the hunger strikes, we challenged the prison-established norm of dealing with us as gang members intent on killing each other. We established cross-race solidarity as our new norm.
The condition for changing our social norms was talking to each other. As I pointed out previously (“What is freedom?” N&L, July-Aug. 2019), the moment I experienced the euphoria of freedom was not walking out of prison, but being released from solitary where I thought I would die. The dramatic change happened through our re-creation of ourselves through new relations with other prisoners.
Now I see different social strata living in separate worlds. I am mediating those. Out here I see the self-separation as a barrier to experiencing freedom. I see dual qualities of humanity, which come out of the complicated nature of capitalist social relations.
Recently my job took me closer to the financial area. We are there to keep street people away from those standing outside “Supreme” stores, waiting for a chance to buy a $40 T-shirt or other limited-edition exclusive merchandise, which can be re-sold, sometimes for ten times more. Every Thursday those special items go on sale. Huge crowds show up.
CAPITALISM’S OBSESSION WITH THINGS
A Latin American immigrant screamed, “‘Supreme’ is a killer. Don’t buy from them. These people killed my family.” Most of my colleagues dismissed this man as crazy. Yet what he said may have been true, given the way U.S. industry treats workers in Third World countries. I wondered who is crazy? The mentally ill who call out “What’s going on here?” or the 300 or so people waiting for the 15-minute opportunity to buy the latest fad?
This obsession with things as objects of speculation is writ large when it comes to real estate. Money has come in from all over the world to make San Francisco housing prices outrageous. San Francisco’s housing is out of reach for the great mass of people. Astronomical housing prices have emptied the previously substantial New Afrikan population.
San Francisco has a homeless population of over 8,000. We don’t need another study of the city’s homeless or abstract rhetoric about affordable housing, which means a few houses made available to a small group of people out of the hood. We are glad for their good fortune, knowing they deserve better.
This system is not working for human beings. The struggle is to figure out what it means to become a human being in this new situation, outside of prison, to challenge social norms when they are not quite as obviously imposed on us by an outside force, but are accepted as “normal.”