BOOK EXCEPT

Shakedown

"Step out," they ordered. I was handcuffed and told, "Spread." This meant facing the wall and stretching out my arms and legs. I was patted down and told to stand next to the door. Four of them went in. They searched every single thing. They unscrewed the lightbulb, they climbed on the top bunk and looked at the windowsill, and they went through every legal and personal paper one by one. They dragged the mattress onto the tier. They took shampoo and talcum powder and poured them out onto the mattress. They took scooped peanut butter from an old jar and smeared it on my personal photographs. They uncuffed me, put me back inside, shut the door, and repeated the process in every cell down the line.

Everyone was yelling. In the cells that hadn't been hit yet, women were standing and watching. The violence seemed to increase with each cell. And then they got to the last three cells. They popped open the door and one of them roared, "Step out!" The woman inside was brushing her teeth. One of them stepped in and grabbed her. She spit out her mouthful of toothpaste and saliva on him. If they had waited ten seconds she would have stepped out on her own. But she was disobeying an order, so four of them began to beat her up, with all the rest of us watching.

This small woman fought back. Everyone was hollering and throwing things out of their windows. An egg went flying and hit one of the guards. Four of them dragged the woman up the stairs and into the entrance to the block. The cops had bloodlust in their eyes. In the hall they couldn't get the cuffs onto her. Her fury matched theirs. Eventually they overpowered her and carried her off. I had never before seen that level of brutality directed against a woman. We were all crying from anger, frustration, and fear. And yet in the D.C. jail, it was almost normal. It was not extreme—a little more brutal than usual, but only a little. To administer by fear and control by terror was a tactic that was understood by the prisoners; it was a natural way of life, inside or outside. I cried because I didn't know how to resist that level of dehumanization.

Amid the wreckage of my cell, I spotted a book of poetry on the floor. I found the well-known poem by Langston Hughes, "Harlem," the one that begins "What happens to a dream deferred?" I stood at my window and in the pulsating silence, in the aftermath of what we had just been through I read it at the top of my lungs. No one said anything. Then a single voice started singing "Amazing Grace," and then another and another until there were many voices. Everyone knew the words. It was a most beautiful rendition, the richest I had ever heard. And as the sound rose and fell I remembered hearing somewhere that that song had been written by a slaver, a ship captain who experienced a dramatic conversion and later spoke out strongly against slavery. "I once was lost, but now am found."

What I was learning in those endless days at the jail was the relentlessness of prison and oppression and the constant abuse of authority as a way of life. To lessen one's expectations about the quality and content of life is a terrible things. In prison one faces a direct attempt to destroy the human spirit. More than anything else, life in the D.C. jail was designed to dehumanize us in order to enslave us.

No nation can enslave a group of people for hundreds of years, set them free—bedraggled and penniless—pit them, without assistance, in a hostile environment against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines begun parallel and left alone can never touch.
(Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, 2000)

Living inside the community that has developed on that unequal parallel line transformed my eyesight, my heart, and my sensibilities. Living amid the suffering, the violence, and the beauty of black people, experiencing their genius in multiple acts of compassion and tradition, and witnessing the physical and psychological damage that results from racist oppression changed my entire life. For the most part, the men and women in that jail were effectively "disappeared." They were exiled from the free world, with little chance of making their way back. The jail was a warehouse, as most prisons are. When life is lived where human emotions are always right on the very surface, and where any provocation can set off an explosive event, the tension and pain are never ending. There are moments when it feels like you have been hurled at a brick wall and all your bones are broken. At those times you can only pray to whatever you pray to, and hope that your bones knit so that you can go on another day.