By Watani Stiner
Though it seems a lot longer, it’s only been nine months since I was released from San Quentin State Prison. Just a few months since I gathered my belongings, said my good-byes and walked eagerly but patiently to be processed from one world into another. I took my final breath of imprisoned air and allowed my ears to surrender the sounds of jangling keys and clanging doors. Twenty-six years of captivity and another 20 spent as an escaped fugitive in exile. I pondered my new reality on the other side of these concrete walls.
I am moving cautiously through a process of re-learning. Unquestionably, after 46 years, this country has changed a lot: people, places and a wide variety of “things.” I’m dazzled by magical cell phone apps and thrilled by the readily available flow of information that can be retrieved from my laptop.
While on the one hand, with the assistance of GPS navigation, it’s relatively impossible to get lost out here anymore, it’s also creepy how easily the government can not only track and find you but can know everything about you. And people don’t even seem to mind. Yet, in spite of all these technological advancements and wonderments, there remains a social reality that seems to have become more pernicious and prevalent—a cruel reality of police brutality, poverty, mass incarceration and gross inequality, yoked with a powerful apathy working as a buffer from the human suffering caused by these conditions.
I was immediately shocked by the saturation of homelessness on the streets of this country. Both young and old roam the streets looking for safety, shelter and a willing handout. I witness constant streams of women, young and old, pushing stuffed carts while hungry and dispirited-looking children try to keep up. I see their hungry faces revealing their thoughts: this is my reality…this is how life is… this is normal.
Now I’m quite aware that this is not the total reality of life on this side of the wall. But it is the one I choose to talk about, one I cannot ignore. The last time I walked the streets of this country as a free man was January 1969. Similar to today, it was a time of great social unrest in this country. In 1969, the year I was sentenced, the prison population in the state of California was less than 25,000. The prison population today has skyrocketed to well over 100,000. And the number of young prisoners is astonishing!
Even though there are now Black faces in high places, including in the White House, and there are more women in the workforce than ever before, poverty, racism and sexism are still very much alive and well. This is the United States of America, the richest and most powerful country in the world. Yet for many of its marginalized citizens, opportunities parallel those in far less developed countries, and those limited opportunities often line the path to incarceration.
Something is not only outrageously wrong with this picture, it has become the acceptable norm among so many of its people: Police abuse, abject poverty and mass incarceration. This country spends six times as much money on incarceration than it does on education. How is it tolerated by so many people that such extreme disparity, not marginalized or hidden but in plain and distasteful sight, can exist?
|“It is this knowledge and depth that are required
in order to move the conversation beyond shallowness”|
I see and long for a genuine racial reconciliation and a genuine accounting for the shockingly glaring disparity in quality of life—which I don’t believe is really comprehended either by the privileged or by the disenfranchised. I long for this reconciliation not just in words, or from some moralistic impulse propelled by a vague notion of “nonviolence,” which is preached mainly to the rage of victims of oppression. I long for a reconciliation forged out of a deeper understanding of the historical threads, a real reckoning with the intentional, violent and state-sanctioned oppression that created the economic and social conditions that we all are confronted with today.
Racism—as an ideology and institutional arrangement, and the desire, the rage, the concerns and the guilt engendered by those on both sides of the issue—is nothing new. And always, there is someone, somewhere who stands up and calls out passionately for racial reconciliation and racial justice. There is often someone pleading with America to engage in “a conversation about race.” This conversation is necessary. It is crucial. All too frequently, however, the conversation doesn’t go very far. I believe this is because in order to really have that conversation, there needs to be a far broader and deeper acknowledgement of the historical devastation that has been thrust upon the once enslaved Africans of this nation.
I’m not only referring to slavery—that human beings were actually kidnapped and brought here against their will—but also a more cohesive understanding about what has been done to these human beings over the last 400 years since we got here. I don’t mean assenting to some disconnected facts about a lynching or a drinking fountain, but grasping that there has been an organized, powerful, pervasive, relentless attack on a certain group of people, perpetrated by their own government and its laws and carried out by its citizens in countless insidious ways.
This is critical to understanding why there is such a wide gap in every area of this society. It speaks to why Africans in America are relegated to certain quarters/sections, into areas of inferior housing and education. Why Katrina was not just a hurricane (if you’re Black), and why so many of us are consumed by the criminal justice system. It also speaks to the reason why a majority of White children are taught and learn in secure environments free of poverty, stray bullets and police brutality.
Learning and deeply understanding the history, learning the depths and the nuance of the pain, and suffering, and difference…. It is this knowledge and depth that are required in order to move the conversation beyond shallowness, because it is necessary for us to move below the surface in order to dismantle the structures weighing upon, shaping, and forming the core of our lives and our interactions.
As long as we stay at the surface level, it is easy to miss or dismiss the enormous magnitude of what has happened around racism in this country, and trying to have a conversation without understanding the magnitude goes nowhere. A conversation to what end? What good is there in our having a conversation if all we are seeking to achieve is a little more pleasant and polite feeling between the races? Is it just about how to live congenially and tolerantly in our inequality? Does the conversation not include action toward structural changes? Does it not hint of redistribution or relinquishing of any resources and privileges? If it’s business as usual, what’s the purpose? After intense exchange of racial experiences, after listening to each other’s racial stories… after we smile and laugh and become friendlier toward each other, what’s next? The same racist institutions are still intact. And we resume our separate lives and wait for the next news flash that proves Black lives do not matter.