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An Abolitionist's Freedom Song
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Marlon Peterson grew up in 1980s Crown Heights, raised by Trinidadian immigrants. Amid the routine violence that shaped his neighborhood, Marlon became a high-achieving and devout child, the specter of the American dream opening up before him. But in the aftermath of immense trauma, he participated in a robbery that resulted in two murders. At nineteen, Peterson was charged and later convicted. He served ten long years in prison. While incarcerated, Peterson immersed himself in anti-violence activism, education, and prison abolition work.
In Bird Uncaged, Peterson challenges the typical “redemption” narrative and our assumptions about justice. With vulnerability and insight, he uncovers the many cages—from the daily violence and trauma of poverty, to policing, to enforced masculinity, and the brutality of incarceration—created and maintained by American society.
Bird Uncaged is a twenty-first-century abolitionist memoir, and a powerful debut that demands a shift from punishment to healing, an end to prisons, and a new vision of justice.
From Chapter 2: Move On
Sixth grade was a tough year for me. Sixth grade was a successful school year for me.
Back in 1990, IS 390 in Crown Heights was an infamous junior high school. It was across the street from Albany Houses, a nine-building high-rise residential experiment for poor Black and Brown people. Elevators never worked, building maintenance budgets were not prioritized, and people were left to act like owners of a building where the landlord was the City of New York. This was the projects and the people living there were taken care of like a project no one cared about.
Like all other geographies that surround housing projects, people did dumb unloving shit. Cursed teachers out in school. Organized themselves into gangs. Robbed each other. Shot each other. There were 2,605 murders and 112,380 reported robberies in NYC that year, the highest ever. A lot of unnecessarily dumb and harmful things were happening in 1990, and not just in New York City. Black unemployment was three times that of whites. Brooklyn had the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the city, and 50 percent of those people were Black. Forty- five per-cent of Black women who headed households in the country were poor. The media, police, and politicians told us that crack was a Black drug, though crack- cocaine was really a poor white drug, with over 65 percent of whites admitting they used to pipe up—compared to 26 percent of Blacks. That’s not my stat. That’s the United States Sentencing Commission Report to Congress. Some of us bought into the narrative that white life was better. We shot, robbed, raped, and harmed our own communities in the ways we were conditioned to by media, police, and politicians—as illegal aliens, crackheads, crack babies, lazy welfare queens, predators, and promiscuous STD carriers. But there were always reasons be-hind our so-called senseless violence—our monstrous acts. Who taught us that there was no sense behind our responses to being treated senseless and unempathetically? Survival of the oppressed isn’t always logical to the oppressor when observing the oppressed. None of our people are monsters—none. The moment we describe people as monsters we shift human behavior into the realm of the unexplainable. Every act of violence can be explained—especially ghetto shit.
Remember, running away from slavery was a crime and a diagnosis for mental illness. Senseless running away. Yet, entire biographies get written when white boys and white men shoot up concerts, churches, synagogues, schools, and protestors. White people made us believe that our pain was monstrous, senseless, and pathological. We have reasons.
Anyways, I only lasted a month or two in IS 390. It was the first time I would be robbed. My victimization wasn’t reported to the police, so I wasn’t included in that 1990 statistic of 112,380 robberies.
It was early in the new school year. I started the sixth grade at ten years old and it was the first time I was in a school where we went to different classrooms from period to period. One day me and a couple of my new classmates were going down the steps to lunch. There were several separate but adjacent stairwells leading to the lunchroom. I decided to take a separate stairwell from my classmates. I always had a penchant for taking my own course.
A few steps into the three or four flight rush down to the lunchroom three gigantic eighth graders approached me in the stairwell, patted my pockets stop-and-frisk style (like the police modeled for us), and took all of my belongings—this time fifty-five cents and a half-fare bus pass. I didn’t fight back or yell. I didn’t know how to react. I had heard about other kids getting robbed on their way to or from school, but never in a way that I had interpreted that it really bothered them. I wanted to keep it a secret. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a punk. Even ten-year-old boys gotta hold their masculinity intact. I hid the hurt.
A classmate who had witnessed everything went and told a teacher, who then told the dean of the sixth grade. Why didn’t he jump in and help me instead of watching, I wondered.
Yo, Marlon! Big Mike is your big brother, right? Tell that nigga. He gone find them niggas for you! Fuck that blind-ass nigga!
An unfamiliar boy’s voice shouted that out from the stairwell as I was on my parade; police call this a show up. I never saw the person who said it. I didn’t know that word of the robbery had made its way around the school. I didn’t know that people in IS 390 knew my brother. I didn’t know that people knew Mikey and I were brothers. I didn’t think Mikey would care about anything that happened to me. I tried to keep it quiet by not telling my parents or siblings that I was robbed at school. But the dean still called my mom later that evening to tell her what had happened to me. I felt like a bigger punk because as soon as Mommy got off the phone with the dean she announced, “Marlon, yuh not going back to that school again. I will find ah next school to put you in.” I hated my mother for that decision. I needed to go back to the school and show that I wasn’t scared, that I could survive IS 390. I needed to prove my manhood. I was terrified, actually, but I knew fear wouldn’t make things better. I never attended IS 390 again. I moved on. Fear won.
For years after that incident I would hear kids in my neighbor-hood repeating that robbery story.
Marlon got robbed and never came back to school.
Hearing ten and eleven-year-old boys and girls call you a punk was worse than actually being beat up. Add in the fact that I was Jehovah’s Witness and I had become the punchline of jokes. The school I was transferred to, PS 138, my old school, was tough for me, too. I fought often because of class bullies like Duke, and other school bullies from the Nostrand Avenue stretch in Crown Heights.
I was bullied because I had big lips, or because some kid saw me over the weekend with a suit and tie “asking for money” by selling Watchtower and Awake! magazines, or because I was too quiet, or because kids knew I was robbed in IS 390, or because I walked lazily like I was gay.
At this time in my life the Kingdom Hall was one of the only places I could feel safe from the ridicule. No one made fun of me there . . . well, not to the point of it feeling unsafe. The other kids there still made fun of my big lips, but it didn’t hurt as much as it did when I was at school, or when my older brother or sister made a lippopotamus joke.
My Tuesday and Wednesday evenings were spent at the Kingdom Hall. Basically, any time I was not in school I was involved with something around my religion the religion of my father. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses believed that association with worldly people should be limited, after-school programs, school athletic teams, and summer camps were off-limits for me. Daddy was strict when it came to religion, and he did all he could to ensure that his youngest child would be raised according to his religion, whether my mother liked it or not.
It almost worked.
—Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist
—Kimberlé Crenshaw, author of On Intersectionality
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
—Danielle Sered, Author of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon
—Sophia Chang, author of The Baddest Bitch In The Room
—Greg Berman, executive director of the Center for Court Innovation
—Dr. Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations