I want to thank Christine for hosting me. This is my first experience writing a post in an exchange with another author and it was fun! Here is my post about how my traveling experiences inspired Book of Angels and the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES, with photos and everything! The photo featured here is the seventh century Swiss castle I lived in as a child.
“For me, this is a way of life. It isn’t a “cause,” it isn’t a “movement.” I can’t put some spin on it. There aren’t any buzz words. It is how I choose to live, and I really can’t help it. It is so much a part of who I am.”
Honored to have this interview, by Constance A. Dunn, published in The Missing Slate, an international arts and literary magazine. The interview tells about My World Project and the backstory leading up to it. Here is a brief excerpt from the backstory…
“I went on a personal quest…I met a woman named Alma Woods, who was responsible for single-handedly getting the Watts Library built. And to illustrate the politics, they didn’t want to name the library after her, they wanted to name it after some big-wig politician and there was a huge outcry and they had no choice but to buckle under public pressure and name the library after her. She was a simple lady, lived in a simple house in Watts and I would go and visit her and “sit at her feet,” as it were, she was a real guru, she taught me so much! She would take me around her neighborhood and I saw Watts through her eyes. If there were kids loitering outside the liquor store she would reprimand them and they would hang their heads in guilt and listen to her. She was respected. She was fearless. I grew to love her. She encouraged me to follow my heart and not be afraid of where it led me. It was after that that I went into Central Juvenile Hall and talked to the principal, Dr. Arthur McCoy, an older version of the nutty professor and the most amazing human being, and he let me start teaching there, along with the amazing teacher in the girls’ school, Cheryl Neely.
Like a beautiful, magical web, one person has led to another in my life. Not big celebrities, or what you would call “movers and shakers,” but the salt of the earth people. The ones who really have the power because they don’t care about it. They are the ones who truly balance the good against the evil. The ones we never hear about. I know I use the word amazing a lot, but really, there is no better word for all these people.
This is the official page for the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES, which you just might want to follow….
Pooled Ink Editor’s Pick Wow, so much happening on the writing front! So proud to have my essay, WHY I CHOOSE TO REMEMBER MY 50TH BLOOD-BATH OF A BIRTHDAY INSTEAD OF TRYING TO FORGET IT chosen for publication in “Pooled Ink.” It is an ‘editor’s pick’ thanks to the wonderful Jennifer Top.
Boys playing with guns as I walked to my favorite café, “Free Gaza” posters everywhere, view from the Galata Bridge and always conscious of the meeting of East and West and the wealth of history, intrigue, romance and violence, this is the Istanbul that inspired me to write. On the streets of Los Angeles, these boys might well be shot by the police or at the very least be put in juvenile hall. Since returning to LA, I am conscious of how there are police everywhere. Sirens going off all day and night, people being pulled over constantly, searched at gunpoint. In Istanbul I was not aware of the police although I noticed cameras. Protests were escalating and one evening as I sat in the café, riot police marched by and then a demonstration and I ran after them to film it. The demonstration was peaceful and the police stayed at a distance. But for how long, who knows? Back home, now, I feel like the police are in everyone’s faces all the time in this city and the unease is even more unsettling than it was in Istanbul.
Just returned from five weeks traveling to Lake Bled, Slovenia; Vienna, Austria; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Istanbul, Turkey. I spent two weeks in Istanbul, staying in a penthouse flat near the Galata Tower with a view of the Bosporus from the terrace. I went there to finish writing the last chapter of my book, Letters from Purgatory. Istanbul is where it all begins and where it all ends. I fell in love with Istanbul and want to go back. September 1st an excerpt from Letters, called Death Row Dance, will be published in The Adirondack Review. I can’t wait to share it!
From LA to Belfast: Art, Gangs, and the Stiff Kitten published in The Adirondack Review Fall 2012 issue
My name is Nicola. I have just recently turned 17. I live on the Shankill and absolutely hate it. A lot of tourists visit this area. To be honest I don’t know why, it is a dump. I live in a two bedroom terrace house with my mummy and step-daddy. I have one older sister who is 23, married and who has two kids. I absolutely love my sister, I would be lost without her. My niece and nephew mean the world to me and always brighten up my day. My mummy and step-daddy don’t work but my real daddy is a full time taxi driver. My area has changed a lot from the past. The paramilitaries always used to cause fights and that but now they don’t. When you walk about our estates at night all you will see is underage smokers and drinkers. Also some people will walk about off their faces on different drugs. In school I was bad behaved and bad tempered and was always being shouted at or punished. If I could I would go back to school and do it properly from 1st year. I have tried drugs in my past and rather liked it. I used to smoke dope a lot but have cut it down as it messed my head up and made me feel paranoid. In the future I wish to take driving lessons, move out of the Shankill, have a good job, get married and have kids.
Shankill is the principal road running through the predominately Protestant working class area of Belfast. Known as The Shankill, meaning “old church,” its residents and shop owners have endured bombings and shootings by paramilitary forces for over forty years. There are various paramilitary groups, however, the two that are the most commonly known are the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was formed to fight for independence from British rule, and the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVA), which fought as loyalists to the British. The clash between these two groups has been a source of terror and bloodshed, termed “The Troubles,” starting in the late 1960s and officially ending in 1998.
The “peace” walls of Belfast were built to separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods with the rationale that clearly defining the territory of each group and having check points to search those who crossed over would discourage violence. Fourteen years after the declaration of peace, not one of these walls has been torn down. Painted murals now adorn many of the walls as an artistic statement offering hope for the future, or, as in the case of the Shankill, commemorating a history of the struggles they have faced. One can’t help but wonder how much hatred, distrust and fear lies hidden beneath the bright colors and positive images.
And, in fact, peace lines are still being drawn. The newest wall was erected a mere four years ago and runs past one of Belfast’s rare “integrated” elementary schools. Fewer than 3 percent of Northern Ireland children attend integrated schools. A Catholic child can live on one side of a peace wall and a Protestant child on the other. They can hear each other’s laughter but they will never meet.
Coming from a melting pot like Los Angeles, it seems hard to imagine living in such a blatantly segregated environment. Yet there are eerie similarities between the streets of both cities. Most of the walls separating neighborhoods from Calabasas to Compton are invisible but they are just as high and unsurpassable as the ones in Belfast.
I have always, since childhood, had a fascination with walls and the doors and gates that offer admittance or exclusion; a way in or a way out, a way to imprison and a way to gain freedom. Often, it is merely a matter of perspective, or it can be about the choices we make of which doors we open and which ones we shut—if we are lucky enough to have the luxury of choice. Whatever the path that leads to a door in a wall and whatever lies beyond, the reason for the wall being built in the first place is usually the same: fear and ignorance.
In the mid 1960s, I traveled with my family to over fifty countries, crossing borders from the Soviet Union to Northern Africa, knowing intimately what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, sometimes the loneliness and the yearning to belong almost too great to bear—particularly in those tumultuous days when it was almost unheard of to see an American family traveling to the places that we did.
My father is a Christian writer and we went abroad in part so he could gain inspiration for his books. It is hard to imagine now, but we literally smuggled Bibles into the Communist Block, a crime punishable by prison in those days, having to pass border after border, every inch of our car searched by guards so tight-lipped and suspicious that I was convinced they would shoot me if I looked the slightest bit guilty, which I was sure I did. Amazingly, they never opened the suitcase with the Bibles. Whether one believes in miracles or not, it was miraculous. I had little faith and at the age of ten experienced a debilitating terror at every crossing and then, once we made it through, a drunken relief that made me giddy.
Our family had the misfortune of arriving in Cairo shortly before the outbreak of the 6 Day War. I know what it is like to suddenly find myself in enemy territory; horribly conspicuous in our bright red VW Van with the requisite USA sticker plastered on the back window, trying to make it through a mob of gun-toting Arabs yelling incomprehensible slogans, sometimes banging on our windows and pointing their weapons at our faces. We wanted to get to Israel but when my dad dared to say this at the tourist agency they yelled back that Israel did not exist. I have never known my dad to display any fear and he calmly responded that yes, it did exist and we wanted to go there, to which they became even angrier. I spent much of my time wishing my dad would just be quiet and that I could sink into the ground and disappear. Sadly, we weren’t able to get to Israel, but traveled to Beirut, thinking we could wait it out, and then had no choice but to escape out of Syria and into Turkey shortly before the borders closed. I celebrated my eleventh birthday, June 6, 1967, in Ankara.
These experiences, and many more which I am writing about in my childhood memoir, Into The World, led to my life-long fascination with walls and barriers and gave me the mindset that there are always ways through them, or around them, if you are brave enough to try. My dad and mom taught me this, and I am forever grateful. Despite the dangers we encountered, the Middle East is my favorite part of the world. I am enraptured by the landscape and architecture and met many wise, spiritual people who broadened my perspective and gave me an appreciation for other cultures and faiths that I would not otherwise have had.
And of course, the fact that at the very beginning of our travels I discovered the Narnia Chronicles in a thatched house in the English countryside and on a blustery rainy day, sat in a big armchair in front of the fire and read about the magical wardrobe that led Lucy to Narnia, well, forever after, my sister and I inspected every wardrobe we encountered, desperately hoping that one of them would lead us to Narnia. It was my first real understanding of the power of words to open doors that could take me anywhere I wanted to go.
This adventure of learning from those who inhabit a culture different from our own is something I have naturally incorporated into my writing programs with incarcerated youth, wanting to share with them the wonder of a bigger world, through the power of words and their own imaginations.
I’m 17 and I’m Salvadorian and I would like to visit there. My mom is over there and she got deported. I’m from Compton. If anyone says Compton around here it makes people think of a gang-infested area of the city .There are certain parts where some races can’t walk, if they do, they take the risk of getting killed. If you are not known in the neighborhood, it you are an outsider, if you’re not from my vario, you’ll get smoked. For me, I grew up in it and of course in a gang, myself, I’m in a gang, it just goes with the territory. My drug is crystal meth. I have loyalty to my gang. I do because if my homies found out if I was more loyal to anything than my gang I take the risk of getting hurt or killed. It has nothing to do with how you feel about it, it’s just how I grew up. They are my family. I don’t know my real family, I never met them. I’ve been locked up for about five years. I want to be smarter now and go to college and do something without my gang. The gang will be supportive of me going to college. When I get out of college I will always visit and always love my vario. But I want also to move on.
Belfast to Arturo: Everyone is asking where is Salvador? Some think it is in South America?
You seem like you want to take a different route in life!
If you had no real family, then who have been the people to raise you?? How and where did you grow up? And how long have you been doing meth?
Is Compton really that bad?? Do you hate people not in your gang? If so why would you??
What do you want to do in college? Do you think you can do well still living as a part of a gang?
You situation has sparked a lot of conversation. Almost that you are contradicting yourself by saying you want to be at college and live better but that your gang is so important.
Chloe wants to know can you leave the gang?? If not why?
Why the loyalty? Are they your family? Are they a real family? Supportive?
I think what you have been saying to us sounds almost like it is a different world. And I suppose it is here really! It’s fascinating and amazing that we are all talking first hand like this. So do not feel pressured into answering all of the questions BUT the guys are keen to find out more. Everything that is talked about is alien to them.
In October 2011 I had the opportunity to go to Ireland for a writing fellowship at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. While there I met a Belfast artist named Clinton Kirkpatrick. Over a pint at the local pub, he told me about an arts program that he conducted for youth from the Shankill, in a place called Impact Training, a trade school for youth who have had trouble in regular schools.
“These kids, they’re so isolated, trapped in this one neighborhood and they can’t get out. I mean, most of them have never been to the other side of the road—they dream of leaving but they view it as impossible. The depression and hardship is stifling, so I try to give them a sense of a bigger world,” he explained.
I was setting up an arts program for youth at a boys’ group home called Pacific Lodge, in Woodland Hills, in Los Angeles. A place like Pacific Lodge is often the final stop for probation youth, one last chance to get it together or they end up in prison. Compared to juvenile hall or any of the camps, Pacific Lodge is a paradise. It’s well tended, on expansive grounds, with a swimming pool and a baseball field. The staff that I met was pleasant and caring.
I thought about the Shankill and about the kids I worked with in LA. Two completely different worlds yet so similar! Ever since I had first started working with at-risk youth I had wanted to set up an exchange like this. Now it could finally happen. I told Clinton, “I would love to do a project with you, have these kids communicate back and forth through writing and art, see what they discover about one another.”
Clinton, being the adventurer that he is—he had recently returned from conducting an arts program in Kenya—jumped on the idea.
When I returned to LA, we set it up and for six months, from January to June 2012, our two groups communicated back and forth, sharing ideas and artwork. The first week I introduced my group to the youth in Belfast and Clinton did the same. We both had a group of about eight youths. My kids knew nothing about how kids in Belfast lived. On the other hand, the kids in Belfast, like kids everywhere, had plenty of ideas about what life in LA must be like, according to television and films that they had seen.
I explained to my boys some of the history of Northern Ireland and the Shankill Road in particular. All the guys and girls in Clinton’s group came from that general area and were Protestants and from intact homes. My guys, on the other hand, were the usual LA mixture. James is half Czechoslovakian and half Filipino, Alec is Russian Jewish, Adrian is Puerto Rican and Nicaraguan, Drake and Anthony are Latino, Ray is African American, and so on. Because of the laws protecting minors in Los Angeles, my group couldn’t send photos, so instead they drew ridiculous faces on cardboard boxes and put them on their heads, took pictures and sent those, which the group in Belfast thought hilarious. My guys were very curious to see the photos of the Belfast group, exclaiming that it was true—they were really white!
Clinton’s group stayed pretty consistent, but mine changed from week to week. A kid might AWOL, get kicked out, or sent home. I never knew what awaited me from week to week. Hard drugs were the demons on the backs of my guys, while alcohol was more likely to torment the kids in Belfast. For my guys, they all felt betrayed by a society that sells the same hard drugs you can find on the street to the general public—but in government-sanctioned packaging—and then imprisons the youth who use them. For the most part, both groups, with a little prodding, proved intelligent and creative; and frustrated by being stuck in a small world that they desperately wanted to escape from.
Anthony from LA
I’m 18, I’m Latino and I basically used to do drugs, mainly meth. I grew up with it, like, basically, it was all around me, in the street, in my family. I’m from Lancaster, which is the desert outside of Los Angeles. It’s exciting—dangerous—because you never know what’s around the corner. I started using meth around 8. How could I make any other choice when it’s all around me? I like to read. My favorite is My Bloody Life: the making of a Latin. He was an ex-Latin Kings and he tells how he got into the gang, grew up in it and it’s all he knew, and the abuse in the family didn’t help. Eventually after he was in prison for 30 years he got out of it. He inspires me to change my life.
From Belfast to Anthony: The guys all thought cohesively that you have a hard life. Because you have been smoking meth from when you were 8. Ryan wants to know how you still operate because ‘meth fucks with you!’ The guys are asking have you ever watched the show called ‘Breaking Bad’?
Anthony: Most of the guys have never seen it but they know what it is. Basically, we would all agree with this advice: don’t believe everything you see on TV. I’m living in this very real world and facing real problems. They are difficult but you overcome the obstacles that life throws at you.
Belfast to Anthony: Carla wants to know what meth is. Can you describe it??
Anthony: It’s a little crystalline substance that fucks your life up. It makes you hyper. It’s a form of speed. It gives you heightened energy, very focused, and honestly not much different from what the government now legally prescribes to kids—which is fucked up if you think about it. Every kid here knows a lot about drugs, both legal and not legal.
Belfast to Anthony: Ryan asks how much do you buy it for?
Anthony: It’s expensive, but it depends on the amount and the bad thing is that once your coming down on it you’ll do anything to get more. It’s called being dope-sick and it’s not just with meth it’s with any hard drug.
Belfast to Anthony: Does your family use it as well? Who first gave it to you?
Anthony: Some of my family does. I found it in my house and started smoking it—I had seen a lot of people doing it so I copied their movements. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to imitate my elders.
For seventeen years I have worked with youth from these divided LA neighborhoods, conducting writing programs inside juvenile halls and all types of detention and placement facilities, encouraging a view through and beyond the walls. I have sat at countless steel tables inside dehumanizing institutions and seen the world of imagination opened to the children trapped there, kids ranging in age from eight to nineteen. We have talked of death and violence, of rape and abuse, of hopelessness and of the terror of the years to come, since many of the youth I have worked with were facing life sentences in adult prison. We have talked of fairies and starlight, of magical voyages to far-flung islands, of life in outer space, of philosophy and history, of science and science fiction. At the writing table there is no official agenda, no evaluations and no tests, no psychologists or educational experts. No winning or losing, no judgment, no good or bad; just plenty of paper and pencils, where free thought is encouraged and invariably thrives.
When I first started working with incarcerated youth, I felt quite alone in my desire to help these young people. I was married at the time and my husband, along with friends and family, thought I was naive, with the potential to make a fool of myself.
The comments always ran along the lines of:
How do you know they’re telling you the truth?
They’re criminals, you can’t trust what they say.
They’re going to play with you, pull the wool over your eyes!
My response was, what do I care if they do?
There is no such thing as lying in a creative writing class. They are free to say what they want—and if they pull the wool over my eyes, fool me into believing what they are saying, then they have done a good job. And I have always found that most young people, when listened to with respect, respond more honestly than adults give them credit for. In fact, young people, I find, are generally more honest than adults.
LA to Belfast: Do any of you have friends that are Catholics?
Curtis: no he has no Catholic friends
Ryan M: yes he has. He plays rugby and plays all around the city with other people. Sport is often a way to unite people
Naomi: Has no Catholic friends. Never really met any to hang about with.
James: yes he had a few from when he was on a residential from school. He stayed down in County Fermanagh. Not in touch with any since or hang about with any.
Daniel: aye they are all dead.
Andrew: No he has no catholic friends. No reason really
Ryan Millar: Yes he does. He hangs about with Catholics and used to go out with a girl who was of that religion.
Chloe works with Catholics… and goes out with them and all.
No one in this room has an opinion that they hate Catholics! Ryan Millar says he used to hate Catholics but he grew up.
Yes people walk in Catholic areas. Only if you are wearing something sectarian do you possibly face a problem. There used to be a guy in this class called Kurtis who would have been sectarian minded. He is not here anymore. We went into Belfast one day and he would not, for love nor money, walk into Belfast City centre the quicker way which is down by the Falls Road. The youth here get so many chances given to them yet often throw it all back in the person’s face who is offering it to them.
The Royal Hospital, which is our main hospital in Belfast, is situated right in the middle of the Falls Road (Catholic area) and people have to walk there to get to the hospital if they need to go.
No-one would ever be in a Catholic church if they were not that religion. Although personally when I dated someone who was Catholic I went to the cathedral to christenings and Easter Mass. Very much because I was completely curious about it all so my little eyes went to take it all in!
Completely look forward to your response back, Clinton
In late 1995, while still married, I started a creative writing program at Central Juvenile Hall, at the invitation of the principal of the school, Dr. Arthur McCoy. As I mentioned, not many people in my world were enthusiastic about the idea of me doing this program. My husband, from an established California real estate family, was dead set against it from the beginning.
I was living in one of those gated communities in Calabasas, since then made famous by the Kardashian clan and their “reality show.” For younger well-to-do couples it is supposed to be a great place to raise children, inside an idyllic bubble unmolested by the violence and drugs of the rest of the city. At least, that is what people are led to believe. There is no such place left in Los Angeles. As an example, in 2011, and within the span of 10 weeks, 3 young people from the Calabasas-Agoura Hills area committed suicide and another apparently died of alcohol poisoning.
In a November 2011 LA Times article, written shortly after the suicides, family counselor Alan Ludington is quoted as saying to a group of bereaved parents, “We try to compare our children’s lives to what we remember from high school. How many of you could get heroin in high school? Raise your hands.” No hands went up. “Well, your children can.”
“One in six teenagers will have a serious problem with drugs or alcohol before they leave high school,” he said.
The article went on to state that “the most common sources in communities like theirs are homes with unlocked liquor cabinets and unused pills in the medicine chest. And parents with open wallets, closed eyes and unwitting ignorance.”
This was the community where my husband and I had naively planned to raise our small children.
One morning in 1996, while I sat drinking coffee at the sun-filled breakfast table, I read an article in the paper about a woman named Alma Woods. The Watts library was being named after her because she had pretty much singlehandedly built that library through grit and determination and the rare ability to shame officials and politicians into acting on her orders. In Watts, Alma was known as “the woman who built the library” but apparently, only a person who had donated at least a million dollars could have a library named after them. A huge public outcry had ensued, resulting in the rule being bypassed so that the library could be named after Alma.
On a whim, I had gotten into my car and, leaving the gated community in which I lived behind, I had driven to Watts to be present at the opening of the library.
Surrounded by press and a cheering public, Alma Woods sat on a raised platform at the front of the library, a beaming grandmotherly figure in a fancy hat. I was determined to meet her and after the ceremony, despite the crowd of well-wishers, we made eye contact and smiled. I don’t remember what we said to one another since there was a lot of confusion and many people vying for her attention but she looked me up and down shrewdly, nodded as if I had passed some inspection, and to my great surprise, wrote her number on a piece of paper and told me to call her. I did and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Alma invited me to her home. I visited her on many occasions, almost guiltily escaping from my mausoleum of a house, not telling my husband because I knew he wouldn’t understand, and finding refuge in her cozy house surrounded by a flower-filled garden, and inside old fashioned comfortable furniture, every surface covered with photos of her children, other people’s children, memories of a life filled with good deeds.
Alma became a kind of guru to me. I could also call her a Keeper of the Gate. Without her approval, I would never have gained admittance into this world that was a forty-five minute drive from my house (in traffic) but might as well have been on another planet. Women living in my neighborhood didn’t go to Watts. Watts was dangerous and undesirable. The people of Calabasas had paid big bucks for the privilege of never having to rub shoulders with the people of the inner city. But I kept going back. I “sat at Alma’s feet” as it were and absorbed as much as I could of her wisdom. When I complained of my marriage or how isolated I felt doing my work in juvenile hall and I questioned whether I should obey my husband and stop, she became quite affronted.
“What do you think, you want the easy life? Sorry, but you weren’t meant for that sit back and get my nails done sort of way of spending your day—excuse me? And if you ever start living like that, you better check yourself because you’ve lost your way. Life is hard—for you, for me, well, it’s hard for everyone in one way or another, I’m not saying it isn’t. But when you choose a difficult path instead of taking the easy way, then, it’s hard because you’re following your calling and if you’re in the thick of the battlefield, you will get hurt, but you pick yourself up and you go on, because that’s just all there is to it.” And she leaned in and pointed at me. “And you are, you know. You’re in the thick of it—on that battlefield!”
She taught me about her neighborhood. She knew everyone by name and they knew her. If a boy was loitering on a street corner, Alma yelled at him to get his ass back to school and he slunk away, turning into a guilty little kid, no matter how gangsta he had looked a minute before. Alma loved her neighbors—I mean she really loved them, in a way that I could never love mine.
Each time I returned to my pristine neighborhood after visiting Alma, the gates closing behind me felt increasingly claustrophobic instead of safe and secure. I did not even know most of my neighbors, although they lived so close, and yet hidden behind thick walls. My neighborhood had no history; no hardships that pulled us together—well, the hardships, the drug addiction, the unhealthy obsession with image and the pressure of living beyond one’s means were buried beneath a shiny veneer and never acknowledged. It was like a movie set where I lived, a calculated plan that had been drawn up and quickly built, along with a media blitz manipulating people to buy into the lie.
It was to Alma that I confided my desire to build my writing program in juvenile hall. Where others had tried to discourage me, she said, with great spirit, that I could do anything I wanted. She believed in me. It didn’t matter to Alma that we came from different worlds. She didn’t despise and look down on me like some rich white bitch who wanted to “help the less fortunate.” And I looked up to her as someone I wanted to emulate. Her blessing was a big reason why I kept going, despite the criticism and outright disdain that I encountered at home.
So, working with incarcerated youth—traveling from one world into another—was something I had been doing for many years by the time I met Clinton at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in County Monaghan, Ireland. I had kept at it over the years, despite my husband divorcing me, despite the jealousies and the politics of the nonprofit world, because the reward of seeing how the written word united kids who would otherwise be enemies on the street was worth it.
Parents do not fully comprehend the terrifying unknown that awaits our youth every time they walk out the front door, no matter where they happen to live. A friend of mine from a Mexican Mafia family told me that when he was a kid police would grab him and throw him in the back of the cop car and drop him off in enemy territory just for fun, just because they were bored.
He said, “Each time they did that, it could have been a death sentence. What does that teach a kid? Who could I trust?”
A New York Times 2008 article states that 1 in a hundred Americans is locked up. And I won’t even get into the percentages of the poor and minorities that are imprisoned.
“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”
Prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,” Michael Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment.”
Certainly, this is the view I got when I went to Ireland. I spent a week in Dublin, speaking to people involved with juvenile justice, and all of them were appalled at the United States’ criminalization of our youth. My friend and colleague, Juliet Bressen, who is a writer and a doctor and works with addicts in Dublin says,
“You wouldn’t put kids in prison in Ireland for drug use. Maybe for supply, but only after all other attempts to discipline the kid have failed. So, probably the kid would be fined, then maybe given a community sentence: and really, by the time all of that is up, he wouldn’t be a kid any more so if he were a serious drug dealer after age 18 he’d go to prison but I’ve never heard of a kid under 18 going to prison for drugs, even for supply. They usually only detain kids here (under 18’s) if they are violent and commit violent crimes like grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, reckless endangerment (drunk driving for example) . . . stuff like that. I think Irish people have their own drug culture that is quite different to American. Here it’s not associated with race, with gangs, or with guns like in America. We don’t have a Mafia or a history of that kind of organized drug culture. We aren’t subject to pressure from the Colombian cocaine market. Poverty is the main problem.”
Poverty is a problem in Los Angeles, too. Overwhelmingly, it is the poor children who are locked up, not the wealthy. Of the kids in my group at Pacific Lodge, only two were not from a poor environment and one of those two was the only white youth in the group.
A report by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and U.S. Department of Justice, “Survey of Youth in Residential Placement: Youth’s Needs and Services,” used data from more than 7,000 youth in custody gathered during interviews. The report’s findings include: 70% of youth in custody reported that they had “had something very bad or terrifying” happen to them in their lives. 67% reported having seen someone severely injured or killed; 26% of those surveyed said they felt as if “life was not worth living,” and 22% reported having tried to commit suicide at some point in their lives; 84% of the youth surveyed said they had used marijuana, compared to a rate of 30% among their peers in the general population; 30% reported having used crack or cocaine, compared with only 6% in the general population.
I am 15 years old. I’m from San Francisco and Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan. I don’t like talking about the Nicaraguan because my dad is part that and I don’t like my dad. My dad is in San Quentin he’s been there for three years. He made me sell drugs. He’s from a gang and made me be involved. He gets out in a few months and I’m going to get an ass-whooping cuz he asked me to do something and I didn’t do it. Before that he made me do something, he said, do it or die and I did it and I almost died. So I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m going back to my hood when I get out and what can I do? I don’t know. I have a bad life, a lot of temptations and bad influences. I don’t got a good man as a role model for me as a young man growing up. My mom is good.
Belfast to LA:
None of these guys drink on the streets here anymore. They used to when they were about 16 but now they are the legal age of 18 they don’t do it anymore in parks and on streets but go out to clubs/bars/pubs instead.
Ryan M (new guy) was out in Bangor (near to the town to Belfast) and was at a concert. He says that the police caught him with drink and confiscated it from him and said that if he was caught again he would be taken to the police station and cautioned.
Cops here would take your booze and empty it out so you cannot drink it.
The guys say that when you get caught by the police in the park here nothing really happens. They take drink off you and give you a brief telling off. But Ryan thinks that you could get caught another few times before anything would actually happen to you and even then it would only be a caution and perhaps a fine. It is nowhere near as violent or oppressive as people where you are! If you showed violence or a destructive attitude towards the police then that is a different story. They would arrest you pretty quickly, take you down to the station and sometimes lock you up but only for one night.
Even I (Clinton) am really in awe of the extent of the different places we live. Because we are in a more post-conflict era it almost gives the impression that we live in a colorful world here. I suppose it is far from that notion actually but it certainly seems a much calmer and much more tolerant society here now. And I wish you all had the chance to come and see it. A different society with different problems perhaps. I just asked the guys what they thought about the difference. They think they have it much easier than you guys.
Which I would agree with!
My Life on 1 Argyle Court
My name is Danielle. I am 16 years old and hate it! I live in a shithole called Conway and there is SFA to do. When my words fail, music speaks! Sometimes I hate my mummy and daddy because they are assholes but I love them. My daddy drives a big ugly car! I miss my childhood because nowadays there is nothing to do. All everybody does is smoke, drink and take drugs. What a life!
Daniel from Belfast
Yes I do take drugs. The drugs I have taken are weed (if that counts), ecstasy and LSD. One of my experiences on ecstasy would be on Boxing Day when I was at the Stiff Kitten. I started with taking 5 while in the Stiff Kitten, then after I left I went to a party and took another 5. By about 5am I was completely skiiwhipped. My drug of choice is weed. The drinking age is 18 over here. I started drinking when I was 16. Drinking is more popular over here.
I live in a quiet little neighborhood in Ballysillan. Nothing really happens.
Nah I am not a graffiti artist, but James is.
Aye, UVF took my phone. Cunts. They’re a paramilitary who think they run Belfast.
Weed is super. It is illegal over here but it’s easy to get.
Life growing up was good. I grew up on the ol’ Crash Bandicoot games on the PS1 and Sunny D.
I can also be humble to the ole blunt and the off red Ferrari every now and again and a wee drop of LSD if I’m feeling cheeky. But no needles or crack-pipes! I enjoy the humble blunt because it is a social thing to do with my friends.
The things I hate are not getting paid, owing money, dealer not being about!
Latest news from LA:
Went to a wolf sanctuary, it was more of a rescue place, we did community service cuz wolves don’t have a play area so we went and built a fence. It’s an acre play pen, there are 24 wolves there. One wolf was 19 years old and one was a year and a half. We felt real smart energy, if someone’s truck drove by they would know whose truck it was and if they liked them they would howl. Black coded cages were wolves are the ones you don’t fuck with—had to stay three feet away from the cage. some are more wolf than dog and some are more dog than wolf, red is a little better, blue and green are very playful.
What do you do at the Stiff Kitten—what is that place—are Catholics going there? It sounds like a gay bar to us with a name like that—but then we looked it up online and saw it’s a rave sort of place? For us to get out of a gang is like for you to get out of the paramilitary group your father and grandfather were in—would you say it can be compared that way? For some of us who live in neighborhoods like Compton, it truly is almost impossible to get out of the gang, because it is in our families for generations. Trust us, we aren’t talking about a TV show here, this is real life for a lot of young people in places like Compton—it is a war zone. But the gang will support us if we leave the neighborhood and go to school. It is possible to move on and have a good life, but you always have love for your neighborhood, you always have an understanding of your gang and the life.
Do you have places like Pacific Lodge there? Do any of you have friends that are Catholics? Do you feel comfortable walking in a Catholic neighborhood. Would you ever go into a Catholic Church?
Here, in inner city neighborhoods, if someone’s walking down the street that you don’t know, you ask “where you from?” and that is a dangerous question—it’s like a confrontation and the answer can get you killed or badly hurt if you answer you’re from a rival neighborhood. So, are you suspicious of people you don’t know in your neighborhood? Can you tell if someone is a Catholic or a Protestant just by looking at them? Over here, you can tell who is in different gangs by what they wear, tattoos, hair.
Belfast to LA:
Unless you kill someone here or they find 1000’s of pounds worth of drugs or you do something of considerable magnitude then you will not be imprisoned. Even if you offend the law often you will get what is called a suspended sentence. So for example….if you get a 2 year suspended sentence you don’t go to jail BUT if you step out of line once during that 2 years you will go straight into prison! More relaxed system. It is not about numbers accumulating in prison here. They try to keep people OUT of prison because it costs too much money to have them in there. I of course talk loosely and everything does not just fit into a box that easily. There are also different levels of crime and sentences given. But the justice system here, regardless, seems so much more diplomatic and relaxed compared to you over there.
Ok so yes you could compare paramilitaries to your gangs. Gangs were like paramilitaries although with the peace process happening here things have somewhat changed and paramilitaries are not at the forefront of the news and community these days. They are still there, don’t get me wrong, and they remind us all that every once in a while. Like for example… a year and a half ago people shot dead a guy in broad day light in the middle of the Shankill Road. Also this weekend just passed there was a car bomb left in the street in Woodvale just up the road from here. So it is still there but not to the extent of what it was a decade ago, 20 years ago or 30 years ago when it was much different. Instead it is a very limited shallow amount of people who operate like this. Like for example…. there was another 600lb car bomb left just outside Newry this weekend as well. Newry is just over the border from the Republic of Ireland. It was the dissident republicans who left it there. This weekend saw a couple of stories like that. Although they are not as crazy as they used to be!
Ryan Miller says there is not the kind of loyalty here that you have there with regard to your gangs. People do what they want to and when they want it. This world, here, would be somewhat independent. In some strange way the binding ‘friendships’ which you have because of your gangs is non-existent here. Friendships, I believe (Clinton), are a lot more disposable here. People don’t really care that much whether they are friends one day and not friends the next!
How well did the two groups end up understanding one another. How different are their worlds really? If a bomb were to go off in Los Angeles, we would think it was a pretty big deal. But because bombs have been going off in Belfast for years, and the level of the bombings has decreased, the fact that a year and a half ago people shot dead a guy in broad daylight in the middle of the Shankill Road. Also, this weekend just past there was a car bomb left in the street in Woodvale just up the road from here… doesn’t seem that bad to the Belfast kids but to the kids in LA it seems horrendous.
My group was offended when a Belfast kid used the word “Chink” to describe an Asian youth, while those in Belfast didn’t see the harm in it. A lively discussion ensued and my guys shared how recently it had been all over the news that someone had been fired from a fast food restaurant for using that word to describe a customer. The Belfast kids were amazed by this.
The Belfast kids thought the LA kids lived a crazy life and they weren’t sure if they really believed it could be as bad as that. The LA kids pointed out that they felt like they were being perceived as something out of a TV show, not reality. Those in Belfast had a hard time grasping the concept of loyalty to a gang. And in LA, they couldn’t understand why Protestants and Catholics would hate each other when they all looked the same because, really, weren’t their religions both Christian so what was the big deal? But both groups began to understand one another better when they explored the similarities between gangs and the paramilitary.
It was clear that the frightening drug culture that we have in LA hasn’t reached that extent in Belfast. Belfast is a smaller, more enclosed space and people have lived in the same areas for generations. The LA kids mostly lived transitory lives, with no real sense of home or identity, except what their gangs gave them.
Over the course of the six months, the youth exchanged artwork as well as writing. (Click here to view some of the artwork.) The youth at Pacific Lodge made a peace wall of their own and sent it to the kids in Belfast. Clinton and some of his group had actually contributed artwork to one of the peace walls in Belfast, which our kids thought was pretty cool.
The last project the LA guys did was a collaborative story—a story of imagination rather than reality.
“THE STREETS OF BELFAST”
by the Pacific Lodge Guys
It was just another ordinary night on Shankill Road: a moonless night, with an icy rain falling. What could a person do to bring a night like this to life?
Out of the darkness and into the dim light of a streetlamp appeared a suspicious person and no one wanted to go up to him and talk to him. He was wearing a long black trench coat and he had a totally tattooed black face. A group of teens (that would be us) were the only ones brave enough to go up to this guy and talk to him because he looked very different from anyone we had ever seen. We all started to have a good conversation, until we asked him where he came from but he wouldn’t tell us and kept trying to change the subject. All of the sudden something happened down the street that nobody could explain—a car exploded but nobody was sure how it had happened. It turned out that the guy we were talking to had set everything up cuz he was a crazy dude. See, this guy was a drug dealer and, yes, we admit it, we were trying to buy a pound of weed. We gave him the money and the dealer told us to follow him. Our car was parked down the street. All of a sudden we saw another explosion down the street and some guys with guns came running after the tattooed dude. We were scared out of our minds and took off on our car. We sped down the street till we hit a light post because of how terrified we were.
Then a guy name Frank appeared and took us to the House of a Thousand Babes. We had our pleasure time until a mushroom arrived, arising from the floor like the best dream come true ever, and we decided to eat it. We were on the biggest trip of our lives. We ended seeing unicorns and leprechauns dancing everywhere. After a couple hours of having the biggest trips of our lives the trip went away and we were sober again.
As usual, after having that much fun, we felt like crap.
We decided to take a walk on Shankill Road once again, when all of a sudden, our homies came and picked us to go to a party, It was only two a.m. They wanted to go drink cuz they was burned out…but we didn’t know where to go since we didn’t know the area. It was completely dark now. For some reason, the street lights dead and rain was falling like knives from the sky.
Damn, we gotta get out of here, we all agreed. We were freezing cold.
Suddenly, a crack in the ground opened up and a huge purple snake slithered out and hissed at us, “How about heading for the Stiff Kitten.” We jumped on its back and started a crazy ride through the streets of Belfast. But just as we reached the door to the Stiff Kitten, all excited to have some more fun, the sun blazed up over the top of the building and the snake sizzled into nothing and the buildings all burned to ash and there we were, in an empty space, thinking to ourselves,
“Yep it sure was another ordinary night on Shankhill Road.”
The story is silly and fun and yet with undercurrents of meaning and, yes, it sure pulled the wool over my eyes. It seemed a fitting way to end the six month exchange, with a made up story, inspired by a place on the other side of the world that the guys in my group had never known or cared about until the door to that world had been opened to them. Like opening that wardrobe and finding Narnia, with “The Streets of Belfast” these guys created a magical world inhabited by sinister characters and a slithering snake and a very real reference to a strange nightclub called the Stiff Kitten—which had absolutely captured all of their imaginations. Clinton and I had the privilege of being Keepers of the Gate, just as Alma had once been to me, and together, we were able to open that door for our youth. Walls are built through fear and ignorance. This LA to Belfast project did its part to dispel some of that fear and ignorance and in so doing, toppled a few walls.