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ATL

Am I reading Atlanta wrong? You resist arrest. Violently. You disarm a cop in the struggle. Yeah, it’s just a taser but you’re firing it over your shoulder as you flee. What if you hit and incapacitate the cop you’re aiming at? Then you can take his pistol and shoot him or the other cop or civilians…

Dangerous, highly volatile situation. Especially considering the alcohol/drugs in your system, substances that are obviously impairing your judgment. Not to mention the insane amount of adrenaline that is flooding the bloodstream of the officer having to make this snap decision. If it’s a decision at all. It could just be reflexive. Academy training taking over.

Do I need to adjust my liberal lens here? Maybe I’ve got some weird strand of Stockholm syndrome that is clouding my view and causing me to rationalize the brutal actions of the police. The same police that have kicked my ass and charged me with assault, sold me drugs and arrested me for buying them, allowed their dogs to chew on my flesh after I was handcuffed… Maybe this is the residual effect of spending all these years in a cage. Maybe, but I doubt it. It just seems like the overwhelming majority of rational people of every race, age, and political stripe would agree that fighting and disarming the police ends disastrously. 100% of the time.

George Floyd was murdered by a bad cop. The facts support this. All you need is eyes to see. There are others. Eric Garner, horrible. Breonna Taylor, tragic and inexcusable. Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown… All killed by the people sworn to serve and protect them. Their deaths reveal a deeply flawed and fractured system. A system that has failed the very taxpayers who fund it. But what happened to Rayshard Brooks was more of an unfortunate tragedy than a murder committed by a salivating racist cop.

As someone who has grown up in the criminal justice system, someone who has been accused and found guilty of numerous crimes, I do not believe a jury will convict the officer of murder. And it shouldn’t. Not if justice is the aim. But how much do we really care about justice? We are living in a time when every constitutional amendment is under attack. Especially the right to due process. Maybe there was never any justice in the first place. At least not for the marginalized fifth of the country that has been watching the local police force-kick their doors down and drag their sons and daughters off to jail for far too long.

Maybe that’s the point.

The secret of the middle way

The options are pretty clear cut: either support defunding the police or support the murder of unarmed black men by law enforcement. Vote for Donald Trump or hate America. Throw Molotovs with antifa or march in lockstep with white nationalists. Kneel during the anthem or high-five George Zimmerman.

With all the publicity that the extremes have been getting, you would think that the radical left and xenophobic right are the only two paths available. Yet everyone I know — black and white, free and imprisoned, Republican and Democrat — falls somewhere in the middle. You may have an uncle who attended a Trump rally, but do you honestly know anyone who is hellbent on initiating a race war? There may be some peaceful protesters in your orbit, but how many people do you know that are talking about blowing up police stations? (WTF)

I’ve always considered the extremes to be polar opposites. Distant outposts on a straight line. At the far left would be communism, take a step toward the center and there’s socialism, another step and there’s liberalism, another step and we’re squarely in the middle. Keep moving right and there’s conservatism, another step and there’s nationalism, one more step and we arrive at fascism. Of course there are gradations and degrees of each ideology but I figured that, at least on a rudimentary level, the line was an accurate model.

I was wrong.

It’s not a straight line at all. It’s curved like a horseshoe. With each extreme on either end, far closer to its ideological opposite across the way than the middle which resides top center. The extremes have much more in common with one another than they share with those in the middle. This is true in every movement. Racial, political, even religious. Radical Islam and hardcore Christian fundamentalism share the similar concept of a harsh, unforgiving God, the same disdain for progress and science, the same subhuman treatment of women. Even though they are sworn enemies. The leftist idea of defunding the police could just as easily be pushed by the paranoid right, suspicious of government overreach and martial law.

Rabid fervor and intolerance are identical out on the fringes. Just check out those wreaking havoc at the protests. Can you differentiate one side from the other? Bloodlust cancels out any motive or cause and the violence hums on a frequency all its own. From the firebomb hurling neo-right to the cop car flipping far left to the police cracking skulls with batons. Extremes.

My own life is a study in extremes, although not in any of the aforementioned ways. But on a personal level. Drug abuse, risk taking, crime… The middle was straight-laced and boring. People were partying on the edges. Vibrant life was pulsing out there. I kept getting sucked in. But life on the extremes is unsustainable. I’m lucky to still be alive.

I was a decade into this prison sentence when I stumbled upon the secret of the middle way. I found it in Michael A. Singer’s brilliant book The Untethered Soul, a book that changed my life. In his explanation of the Tao, the invisible thread that passes through everything, he uses the following analogy:

“A blind person walks down a city street with the use of a cane. Let’s give that cane a name — it’s the seeker of extremes, it’s the feeler of edges, it’s the toucher of yin and yang. People who walk with the use of that cane often tap from side to side. They’re not trying to find where they should walk, they’re trying to find where they shouldn’t walk. They’re finding the extremes… The extremes create their opposites, the wise avoid them. Find the balance in the center and you will live in harmony.”
Hard to argue with that.

Jason Isbell

“I hope you find something to love, something to do when you feel like giving up. A song to sing or a tale to tell. Something to love. It’ll serve you well…”

I think Jason Isbell had his baby daughter in mind when he penned these lyrics, but they feel like they were written specifically for me. All of his songs do.

I discovered him a decade ago on NPR’s World Cafe right around the time I was working on my first novel. The homogenized rap and metal on corporate radio felt soulless and prepackaged and did nothing to inspire me. The Indie artists on World Cafe seemed more honest, more creative. Tuning in became part of my writing ritual. A ritual that has evolved over the years. Mainly because tablets were introduced to the prison system in 2018, I barely listen to my radio anymore. But I own every album by Jason Isbell. From the obscure side projects with Elizabeth Cook to his “Sea Songs” with wife and fiddle player, Amanda Shires, to all of his releases with his band, The 400 Unit. When I finally get my hands on a guitar again, his music will be the first I learn. I envision a free me on Mom’s back porch with an acoustic, finger-picking St. Peter’s Autograph. It’s coming…

A friend of mine told me Mr. Isbell is one credit short of a master’s degree in storytelling. I can hear that in his music, in the details he presents in his lyrics. “Sharecropper eyes” and “burning Ferris wheels” and “old women harmonizing with the wind…” Dude is the most gifted songwriter this side of Dylan.

But it’s not just that. In an era where southern men are increasingly judged by the size of their MAGA hats, his songs are a rallying cry for kindness and courage and humanity. Don’t believe me? Check out these ten Isbell standards:

1) Traveling Alone — “Damn near strangled by my appetite. Ybor City on a Friday night. Couldn’t even stand up right…”
2) Cover Me Up — A story about finding your soulmate.
3) Last of My Kind — A country boy attempts to make sense of neon lights, dirty sidewalks, polluted rivers and the invisible homeless.
4) If We Were Vampires — His wife shadows his vocals in this haunting song about love and time.
5) Overseas — Blistering guitar riff. “This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts died out…”
6) 24 Frames — You thought God was an architect? Now you know. It’s almost like he told his bass player “you can hang out on this one.”
7) Live Oak — Classic Isbell storytelling
8) Elephant — A song about watching a friend die from cancer.
9) Only Children — “Remember when we used to meet, at the bottom of Mobile Street, to do what the broken people do?”
10) Flagship, Chaos and Clothes, Alabama Pines, However Long, Something More than Free, Dreamsicle (I added a few bonuses just in case anyone shares my enthusiasm.)

The highest compliment my fellow prisoners pay me when they read my books is that they recognize themselves in the stories, that I’m writing their lives. Jason Isbell has a similar effect on me. I can hear my reflection in his songs.

Since his new album Reunions dropped a couple of weeks ago, and his music is such a big influence on my life, I figured this was overdue.

A shining example

A month ago I had a little rift with someone I love very much over Trump. (Who else, right?) This was my first real taste of a phenomenon that free people have been experiencing with friends and neighbors and coworkers since 2016. I have always assumed that anyone intelligent and empathetic and kind would reflexively reject Trump’s lack of humanity.

If only things were that simple.

I’ve known this girl since she was a baby and there is nothing dark about her heart. She is the embodiment of innocence and light. She just has different views. But what was really troubling for me in this confrontation was my own response. The way my blood pressure skyrocketed, the way I stammered, how empty I felt when we hung up. I was so rattled that I began questioning my own beliefs. Maybe I had a blind spot. Maybe I was drinking the “liberal media” kool-aid. Was I biased against Trump from the outset? I thought I had written something around his inauguration saying that he deserved the benefit of the doubt, that America’s success was tied to his success as president. I went back through my essays, searching for evidence of my own open-mindedness and instead found this from 2017.

If you’re reading this, and I know you are, below is some of the back story that informs my opinions. This is what I couldn’t shoehorn into an emotional 15-minute collect phone call. I love you.

A shining example

Blame it on George Orwell. He once said that it’s impossible to enjoy the writings of someone with whom you take political issue. For this and other reasons, I decided to steer clear of politics in 2017. I even made it a New Year’s resolution. I consider my novels to be letters to the world and want these posts to read the same way. I thought this year I would include more humor, more story, more music. But like many Americans, I’m already backsliding on my resolutions, three weeks in.

For this I blame another George: Stephanopoulos. Last weekend I watched him stroll around the White House with President Obama for a final interview and as the outgoing Commander-in-Chief answered each question with the same poise and equanimity that have been the hallmarks of his tenure in the Oval Office, I knew I had one more political post to write.

I campaigned for President Obama in prison visitation parks in the Deep South. I spent much of 2008 convincing mothers and fathers of lifers that the Supreme Court justices and lower appellate court judges that he would potentially appoint could one day mean freedom for their sons. Or at least provide hope. He did not disappoint. Eight years later he leaves the job as the biggest criminal justice reformer in the history of the White House.

He was also the most gifted orator, certainly of my generation. Over and over I watched him run circles around his opponents in presidential debates (horses and bayonets, anyone?). He did it with humor, too. Remember the press dinner in the lingering aftermath of the birther allegations? He had the band strike up “Born in the USA” and came out pumping his fist like Springsteen. His State of the Union speeches were honest and engaging. His presidential addresses, especially after tragedies such as Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the Dallas police murders conveyed hope and healing to a heartbroken nation.

But it wasn’t just words. It was action, too. Despite being hamstrung for three-quarters of his time in office by a partisan Congress that needed him to fail, he still managed to tame a gluttonous Wall Street, rescue American icons Ford and Chevy from the brink of extinction, steer us out of an economic crisis that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth, and commute the disparitive sentences of hundreds of war-on-drugs prisoners.

Oh yeah, he also got Osama Bin Laden.

However, his legacy will not and should not be tied solely to this historic hit on America’s most notorious enemy. But rather to the kindness, tolerance, and humanity he displayed over the last eight years. Just how kind was he? Well, I wrote him a letter and he wrote me back. Think about that. Amid all the global tension, intelligence briefings, and thousands of voices clamoring to be heard, the leader of the free world took the time to respond to a prisoner.

Critics will point to the ACA as a failure. Maybe. Millions of Americans who are now insured would probably disagree. I have no voice in this debate. As a prisoner, my health care expenses are limited to the five-dollar copay I’m charged each time I visit the clinic. I do believe that no idea is born fully formed and eventually, some future administration, possibly the new one, will iron out the kinks in Obamacare, repackage it, and present it to the American people as a glowing success.

Critics will also point to race relations as a failure. On this I vehemently disagree. Because of President Obama, the issue of race is no longer the elephant in the room. It’s a hot button issue. A water cooler issue. And people from all walks of life are expressing their opinions. If there is ever to be a united America, it has to start with an open line of dialogue. His polarizing presence in the White House alone has nudged us into having these uncomfortable conversations.

But the main reason I admire our 44th president has nothing to do with diplomacy or policy or statecraft. During one of the darkest periods of my life, as I tried to claw my way out of the immense hole I had dug for myself, President Obama was a shining example of what leadership looks like, what self-mastery looks like, what manhood looks like.

I found this quote from Michelle Obama scrawled in the journal I used while writing my second novel, With Arms Unbound. It’s from the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “Even in the toughest moments, when we’re all sweating it, when all hope seems lost, Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise. He just keeps getting up and moving forward … with patience and wisdom and courage and grace.”

I hope that one day, when I leave the world of prison behind, my future wife will hold me in similar regard.

I know this election season has been vitriolic and divisive. Despite our new president’s numerous faux pas, head-scratcher cabinet appointments, and thin-skinned cringe-worthy tweets, I do not wish him failure. To wish him failure is to wish America failure. At minimum, I’m hoping jobs continue to grow under his stewardship. His entrepreneurial chops could well prove to be a huge asset for the country. But no matter how prolific Donald Trump’s triumphs, Barack Obama will be a hard act to follow.

Since this has to end somewhere, I’m thinking a good place would be where the journey began: on a Tuesday night in November 2008, Grant Park, Chicago. After an historic landslide victory over John McCain, a younger, less gray president-elect put the following question regarding change to the spirited crowd of thousands: “When are we going to realize that WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for?”

Eight years, three novels, and a couple of miracles later, I can point to that speech as a major turning point in my own journey. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. President. I can’t speak for the rest of the nation, but in my little corner of captivity, you will be missed.

 

Reconciling Minnesota

In the late eighties, somewhere between Iran-contra, Exxon Valdez, and a World Series earthquake, I was handcuffed and driven from the Dade juvenile detention center to Miami International Airport. I had the dubious honor of being the first Florida juvenile delinquent to be sent to an out-of-state program. A place called Sherbourne House in frigid Saint Paul, Minnesota.

I remember the double takes and raised eyebrows when I stepped off the plane in shorts, a t-shirt, and a mullet, with only a rumpled brown lunch bag as my luggage. It was December in the Twin Cities. Everyone else was dressed for the occasion. The van driver had no problem picking me out of the crowd.

As we drove down the snowy streets to the former rectory that would be my residence for the foreseeable future, I had no idea I was heading into some of the best days of my troubled youth. Ice fishing, Twins games, sledding, skiing, snowball fights… Definitely a different experience for a Florida kid.

But the memory that stands out the most about Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the same takeaway most visitors to the area have: The people are so nice.

In Miami it was nothing to see grown men come to blows in a traffic jam on the Palmetto. Or cars speeding by a stranded, broken down family in the hazard lane. That would never happen in Minnesota. The low income neighborhood where Sherbourne House was located was home to people of Nordic descent, plus Vietnamese, Somalians, and every gradation of black and white on the color spectrum. They all waved and smiled when the van drove by. Every time. But they wave and smile in the south, too. It’s not just that. Minnesotans cared for each other. Like “cared” as an active verb… Checked on each other during brutal winters, shoveled snow from neighbors’ driveways, looked out for the elderly among them. In short, they were a community.

I think this is why it’s so difficult reconciling the Minnesota in my head with the one I’ve been seeing on TV. Where police kneel on the necks of unarmed citizens while the life drains out of them, like big game hunters posing over a trophy kill. Where molotovs fly and struggling small business owners weep and precincts burn.

This is not the Minnesota I remember. But then America as a whole is pretty unrecognizable right now.