“A menace to society,” is what I was called by the judge at the age of 14. Those words rang in my ear and stabbed my mother in her heart.
“Not my baby,” she cried, “Not my baby.”
I was a bad kid in the eyes of the law. They labeled me and I wore that jacket for many years. It was fitting, considering where I came from. All the kids that were born into poverty in my community wore the jacket: promiscuous, too ghetto, nappy hair, liar. Why so many jackets with labels? I am not what you call me.
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I want my words to paint a picture, so you understand. I want them to tell you a story of a 12-year-old Black girl living in a homeless shelter with my siblings and parents; riding the L train from the north side to the south side and back again; being in awe of the difference: Some people wearing nice clothes. Lawns, gardens, clean streets; and others surrounded in barbed wire, broken glass, broken buildings and broken dreams.
I want my words to ask you the questions, “Why are there no resources?” “Why isn’t there any help in Black and Brown communities?” And “Why should anybody have to go to prison or jail to receive support?” I want my words to help you understand what welfare, mental health and justice systems look like in communities of color.
Growing up, both my parents worked hard to provide. They wanted the best for us: Catholic school, dance and music lessons. But it became harder and harder to cover expenses. My father was a respected tap dancer and choreographer in Chicago. But he was old when he started his family, 62 when I was born and 70 when my mother gave birth to the youngest. When you’re a dancer, you rely on your body, so once his health started to decline, his business did too.
Because my dad made his living as an artist, the arts were an important gift, not only for expression, but independence and economic survival, so my parents spent money to make sure we had piano lessons and dance classes. I was almost ashamed of that because other kids around me didn’t have it. But what we didn’t have was enough food. I would see people who received food stamps, coming home with all these groceries, and I’m like “Dang, they got a lot of food.”
But my mother didn’t want to accept government assistance to get what we needed because she felt that we would all be trapped. They might say she wasn’t capable of caring for us, and then the child “welfare” system would have stepped in and taken us. She would always say to me, “Honey, we don’t get on welfare.” You see, my mother was traumatized as a child by public assistance because that is how she lost her father. She told me stories of how the aid worker said that her daddy couldn’t come into the home once they accepted support.
Before 1968, there was a rule that stated that you could only receive public assistance if there was no able-bodied man in the house. This rule in the welfare system forced men who had lost their job or didn’t have enough work to choose between abandoning their children or watching them struggle with hunger: punitive systems of separation that broke down our families in exchange for basic support.
But even though we didn’t have the kind of food other kids had, my family was rich in love because we had each other. And no matter what we were going through, me and my five siblings always found time to laugh and joke, even after we lost our home.
I’ll never forget coming back from school and seeing all our things, clothes, pictures, dumped onto the street, my father standing in the middle of it all with our dog. I was 12 years old and I was walking home with my brother, who was 11, and our four younger siblings. My brother and I were so ashamed that we snuck away, took the L tracks down, before he saw us. But all my younger siblings ran to meet my dad, surrounding him with their own fears, crying and asking questions as he stood there trying to figure out what to do. You could see the look of overwhelm and determination on his face, an older man, 74, trying to provide and find a way for his children.
After a few months trying to keep our sanity in a shelter, we were able to get a home in the projects. That is when I realized we were poor, because once you are in the projects, poverty encompasses every aspect of your life.
When I think about the projects and the structure of how they were built, I see this: Black and Brown people compartmentalized, labeled as poor, labeled as lazy, labeled as not wanting to work, labeled as receiving assistance, labeled as living off the government; labels that took no accountability for the history of oppression of people of color that left us impoverished and squeezed into a concentration camp on top of one another. My mother didn’t want to go back to the projects, but we needed housing and the system gave her no other choice.
My parents were out of the house most of the time, working, and my older sister was left to watch us. During that time, my sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia and her behavior was really unpredictable. Out of nowhere she would start hitting me. It was really scary. But my mom didn’t want to believe it. My sister needed mental health support and treatment, but my mother didn’t want that kind of help: another punitive system for the poor that might break up our family. “No, those places are bad,” my mom would say. “We’re not going to put your sister in an institution.”
So, with my sister unwell, I became the oldest child in many ways, and I stepped up to do what I could. I would dress up, put on my Sunday best, and I would shoplift to provide for me and my siblings. My parents would be at work, and we were tired of eating government cheese and bread, so I would steal food, mainly meat, then come home and cook.
Or if we needed shoes — I mean, we had shoes, hand-me-downs, thrift store stuff, but as a child you always want what other kids have — I would dress up and head to Favor’s. I don’t know if you remember Favors? It’s a store like Pay Less. And I’d be like, “Don’t tell mom where you got them from.”
Of course, my mom used to question everything. I would say, “Oh… my boyfriend’s family gave them to me,” or something like that.
When I was finally caught at age 14, I stood before the judge and he called me “a menace to society.” The family shoplifter of meat and shoes, a menace to society.
Did the judge know what it was like to be hungry?
Did the judge know what it was like to grow up in poverty, a poverty I thought I would never overcome?
Did the judge know what it was like to be extracted from your home and dumped into the streets?
Would it ever be possible for the judge to admire the determination of a young Black girl not to give up? The way she looks in the mirror, adjusts her best blouse and recites to her reflection, “Poverty no more. Poverty no more!”?
The judge did not recognize that there was no menace or malice in my heart at that age, simply love for my family and a desire to provide some of the basic things every kid wants.
At age 14, I was sent to juvenile prison. There were so many people from the projects caged in there — I couldn’t believe it — and they were in for doing a lot more than shoplifting. That really upped my game. I learned how to commit bigger crimes. The punishment system, instead of helping me and my family, wove me more into the crime scene and more and more into the streets. By the time I was a young adult, I had 18 felony convictions for forgery and theft. I was looked at in my community as a role model of survival, the coldest hustler from Tri Nine. I took on that identity. That label was mine. I owned it.
And when I wasn’t sure I could keep it up, heroin gave me the feeling I could steal, or take anything. And before I knew it, I was an addict.
I could say to you that if the judge had only asked me at age 14 why I was shoplifting, I would have told him my story. Maybe he would have recognized me as a strong and loving child, trying to do good by my family, a 14-year-old Robin Hood from the hood.
But honestly, if the judge had asked, I would not have told him. Because if he knew about our hunger, my sister’s mental collapse, he might not just have taken me away. He might have taken all my siblings into another system called the Department of Children and Family Services. So I didn’t mention our poverty, and instead of losing us all, my mother just had to cry for one child; I was the only one sent away.
Why so many systems? And why are they so punitive? Who created them? And why do they separate us? Why?
Women and men with no legal economic opportunities are surrounded in poverty and forced to go into the underground market to survive — whatever that underground market looks like: Sometimes it is selling drugs; sometimes it is selling your body.
But you like to say the story is about crime, or drug addiction, or evil.
Really, the story is about poverty. And the story of poverty in the Black community is directly related to the history of slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow and all the redlining laws of the government that pushed us into the projects instead of homes in the suburbs. This story is about you, America, not me.
But you pretend not to see the violence that this American history has caused Black Americans. You pretend not to see the violence that your punitive systems cause. So instead of listening only to my personal story as part of this monologue, let’s look at the story of state violence caused by multiple systems that America creates — violence under the watchful eyes of the law.
When I speak up for my community and say, “We need safe housing for women with children,” the system instead offers us parenting classes led by people that don’t look like us, don’t understand the true story, and label us with their judgments.
When I say, “We need mental health and drug addiction support,” the state representatives say, “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough treatment facilities for your community. So folks will have to go to prison to get treatment and keep communities safe.”
What? That’s not what we need, not what I needed! Prisons didn’t make me safe. Jails and prisons should not be our mental health facilities or our treatment facilities.
I think about how many times I relapsed while struggling with my heroin addiction. With every relapse the consequence was jail, not healing.
What about harm reduction? The harm of your systems causes more trauma that is passed on, parent to child, generation after generation. And it is intensified as you send parents to jail, and children lose the love that is their greatest riches.
We need resources funneled into our communities, not jails and prisons. There would be no need for prison or jail at all, if we had the things that we need mentally, physically, and emotionally, and that should be readily available in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
My trajectory in life could have been different if only you, America, had taken a closer look. If only you had seen me. But I see you, America. I see the pain that you have caused — and will continue to cause, if you don’t look at racism, sexism, classism, and all the other isms that are woven into the systems that you create: systems you say are for the good of justice; the good of mental health; the good of public assistance but are tainted by rules and directives that destroy the lives of my community.
Please know, I was incarcerated before I went to prison. I was incarcerated by the bounds of poverty and injustice, and the shackles had more rings than I can count. Once inside your system, those rings extended, and the permanent punishment is hell.
I wanted my words to tell you a story of the past hopes and dreams that the system destroyed because of that first arrest and incarceration at the age of 14. But also, please know that through it all, not only did I survive, I now thrive. And I work to dismantle punitive systems. And my experience as a formerly incarcerated woman has made me who I am today. And I won’t hold on to shame or guilt.
Remember me for who I truly was at age 14 and who I continue to be today. A leader that leads with love. Who encourages all Black and Brown girls to share their truths and proclaim: Poverty no more.