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Divine Intervention Part Two

Dad holding me as a newborn, January 1974.

“The plains of desolation are white with the bones of countless millions who, at the very dawn of victory, sat down to wait… and while waiting, died.”

Who penned this powerful adage on the importance of perseverance, on striking while the proverbial iron is hot, on resisting the temptation to rest on one’s laurels?

I forget the dude’s name. Shonda googled it for me recently but between the head injuries, the dope smoke, and standard mid-life brain recalibration, it’s getting more and more difficult to remember random trivia. The author of the quote is immaterial anyway, at least as he relates to the subject matter of this essay. In my mind it is eminent domain of my father, dead thirty years this coming September. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard recite it. I consider it one of Dad’s greatest hits, right up there with The Ballad of Samuel Hall, Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey (“See the tree, how big it’s grown?”), random lines from Birdman of Alcatraz, and timeworn maxims like “When you lose your temper, you lose” and “If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.”

Dad talking to me as a teenager with his arm around my shoulders on a bridge in a park in Florida.

I can see him now, brow furrowed in contemplation, eyes finding mine in the rearview of our old brown Buick as endless rows of pine trees tick away outside the window, morphing into the familiar rivers and pastures and lonely county road overpasses on the stretch of I-10 between Mobile and Tallahassee.

“The plains of desolation are white with the bones of countless millions…”

What did it all mean? My seven-year-old brain could not grasp the concept. Perhaps neither of us did. But it sounded cool. And Dad’s tone and delivery lent a certain profundity to the phrase, earmarking it as important.

Turns out it was.

Me holding two of my novels in my lap, Consider the Dragonfly and On the Shoulders of Giants.

I sat down to write my first novel at age 37, a little over 18 years after the prison chaplain at Lake Butler summoned me to his office to notify me that my father had passed. 18 years… It went by in a blink. Or maybe blur is a more accurate word. Back then, my fellow prisoners were always pontificating about the heightened sense of awareness that is a byproduct of doing time, and how it makes navigating life outside the razor wire a cinch. Theoretically, multiple years of staying on one’s toes and sleeping with one eye open was supposed to give a man a decided advantage over those somnambulant suckers out there slogging away on autopilot. Not so, in my experience. During my brief vacation of freedom, just after the turn of the century, that mean ol’ world chewed me up and spit me out quicker than you can say 10-20-Life. I got hooked on crack cocaine, crashed three different cars, endured brain surgery, received 70 staples in my head, was mauled by police canines, indicted by the federal government, and tossed back in the Escambia County Jail before I could even get my bearings.

My return to the joint was a homecoming of sorts. After spending most of my youth in institutions, the prison landscape was more familiar to me than the free world, the characters more predictable. I picked up right where I left off—getting high, playing cards, working out, gambling on football. Cliché prison shit. Years passed. But with them came a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with the life I was living, with the man I had become. Similar to Izzy in On the Shoulders of Giants, I had grown sick of the yard with its dope and its gangs and its parlay tickets. I longed for something different, an identity other than failure-loser-career criminal. So, in 2011, I turned inward and lost myself in imagination and memory. What came out was Consider the Dragonfly.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, the family it is centered around closely resembles my own. This is especially true for the character of Chris McCallister who is Mac Collins note for note. From the messiah complex to the courtroom speech to the congestive heart failure at age 51. If you ever want to meet my father, his ghost still wanders the pages of that first book—smoking pot in Tampax wrappers and two-liter Pepsi bongs, having conversations with Peter Jennings through the television screen, blessing shoppers in a South Miami Publix. A grown child battling demons, a lost soul stumbling toward the light.

Dad in front of our Christmas tree in 1992, his last Christmas.

Despite this honest and, at times, unflattering characterization, I think Dad would’ve loved the book. I think he would’ve loved all of them. From Dragonfly to Giants to Entanglement and all points in between. He would’ve dug these essays too. Not necessarily for any riveting plot lines or liquid prose but for the achievements themselves. For the work. I know he would’ve been proud of the letter from President Obama, the Writer’s Digest Book Award, and the article in the Pensacola News Journal.

Dad's multiple stacks of self-improvement books.

My father was a lifelong fan of discipline and mastery. This may sound odd considering that he spent much of his adult life north of 300 pounds, smoked two packs of Camel non-filters a day, had a brutally low self-esteem, gambled recklessly, bought dope with grocery money, and was in every way about as undisciplined as a man could be. But maybe that was the point. Since self-discipline felt so unattainable to him, he coveted it the way others covet beauty or wealth or 4.3 speed.

His nightstand was usually littered with books by men like Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Dr. Wayne Dyer. Masterworks on conquering the self, setting and exceeding personal goals, winning friends and influencing people… I’m certain the quote was lifted from the pages of one of these best-sellers. I can imagine him committing it to memory, repeating it over and over with all the desperation and fervor of a religious fanatic.

“The plains of desolation are white with the bones…”

This essay was supposed to have been written in October. At the checkered flag of my final year in state prison. It was supposed to be about finishing strong and doubling down on all the things that changed my life over the course of this decades-long journey. Unfortunately, I took my eyes off the road and ended up in a ditch.

If you read my last essay, TICKETMAN, then you know that I recently decided to let the old me—a lost soul who went by the name of CC—out of solitary confinement. Just to run Bond Money, my old football ticket. And perhaps participate in a little well-earned debauchery with some of my homeboys, many of whom I’ll never see again once I walk out the gate. No harm in that, right? I can be moderate. It’s not like I haven’t enjoyed a joint here and there over the last couple years, or drank a little buck. These things are part of the prison experience. How could I continue to write convincingly about this world that I’ll be leaving soon if I didn’t fully immerse myself in the culture from time to time? Consider it gonzo journalism.

Yeah, bad move, Hunter S. Thompson.

This delusional pursuit of moderation quickly devolved into nights burning stick after stick of a new and unfamiliar drug in a cell full of strangers, smoke-stained fingers singed and cracked from holding Brillo wire to batteries in order to light yet another, groping blindly on the floor in the dark for any dope I might have dropped during the day. Me, the great Malcolm Ivey, award-winning author of six novels, acclaimed essayist, beacon of mastery, spouter of platitudes, ejaculator of self-help advice… crawling around on the floor like a damned crackhead. Again. That was the scariest part—my response to this strange 2022 substance mirrored my response to crack cocaine in 2004, the drug that cost me 20 years in prison and almost cost me my life.

Dad holding my hand on the first day of kindergarten in 1979.

In the span of a few short weeks, I found myself staring into the abyss. Every inch of ground I had gained over the last 12 years was suddenly crumbling beneath my feet. Dark clouds were gathering. Vultures circled overhead. Yet night after night as I lay in my bunk coming down—heart pounding, sweat pouring, the stench of failure all over me—a staticky and persistent voice kept repeating in my head like an AM radio broadcast circa 1981.

“The plains of desolation are white with the bones of countless millions who, at the very dawn of victory, sat down to wait… and while waiting, died.”

Dad. Those eyes in the rearview, clear as the morning sky. A seven-year-old boy in the back seat of a Buick. Interesting how the above quote could have so little impact 40 years ago but could prove to be so relevant in 2022. Those words saved my life.

Me holding my lunch box on the first day of kindergarten in 1979.

Possibly. Or perhaps this essay is a romantic oversimplification of my own near-death and bounce-back. After all, there were a myriad of reasons to get up off the mat: a solitary girl, some little people who need strength and stability in their lives, a mom pushing 80 who’s spent the last 30 years in prison visitation parks, my time-barred brothers and sisters who are counting on me in the long fight for a parole mechanism in the state of Florida, books to write, a world to see…

Still, there’s something about that quote; how it got lodged in my head like a splinter and refused to come out, how it played over and over like one of Dad’s old Everly Brothers 45s on the family RCA. Out of nowhere and at just the right time. The starry-eyed writer in me prefers the mystical explanation; that my father—or the combination of my father and a force more loving, more powerful, and more intelligent than my father could ever hope to be—stashed a life raft on Interstate 10 all those years ago. And that proved to be the difference. As Jason Isbell sings in New South Whales, “God bless the busted boat that brings us back.”

Either way, the whole experience was enough to make me take my ass to church, a place I haven’t been in a quarter century. If for nothing else than just to change up the energy and escape the hopelessness of my unit for an hour. I’ve been attending for a month now. But that’s another essay.

[The original Divine Intervention can be found on malcolmivey.com and was written about a night in March 2005]

Mayor Pete

There is zero political correctness in captivity. No one tiptoes around emotions or tries to figure out ways to put things delicately. Contemporary millennial vernacular with its “triggers” and “safe spaces” is a language alien to the chain gang. Here, racial slurs are commonplace, women are bitches and hoes, and even the LGBTQ community doesn’t bother saying LGBTQ. They just call themselves sissies and punks like everyone else.

It is through the blunt prism of this parallel universe that I first noticed presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Noticed and immediately dismissed him based on the fact that he’s gay. How could I do such a thing? The same way most people do ignorant things: I did it unconsciously. I live in a world where homosexuals rank somewhere around child molesters and snitches in the food chain. No way a sissy could lock horns with Donald Trump. Much less strongmen world leaders like Putin, Kim Jong-un, or Duterte. No way America would elect a gay dude to the White House.

Then I heard him on the debate stage. Several times. And I watched him on the Sunday morning round-table shows. The more I listen to him speak, the more difficult it is to dismiss him based on who he loves. What business is it of mine anyway? He’s not auditioning for The Bachelor, he’s running for president. It’s his vision and character that matter.

Mayor Pete is an Afghan war vet, Naval intelligence, Rhodes scholar who speaks seven languages. At age 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the field which means, more than any other candidate, he has a stake in things like climate change and the national debt because he’ll still be around when these fiscal time bombs are set to go off. He describes addiction as “a medical problem, not a moral failure,” seeks to end prison profiteering, and abolish minimum mandatory sentencing. He thinks we should measure our economy not by the Dow Jones but by the income of the 90%. He’s moderate in his politics. He’s not out there trumpeting “free everything for everyone and Jeff Bezos is gonna pay for it!” Any far-left president as a knee jerk response to four years of Trump’s America First/Pat Robertson brand of isolationism would only pave the way for another wild over correction in 2024. Too much is at stake for that. We need a uniter. Someone who will galvanize and energize, not polarize. But make no mistake, Mayor Pete would eviscerate Donald Trump on the debate stage. Run circles around him.

And yet.

There’s still this lingering voice in my head. “Come on, man. Really? There’s no way…” I keep thinking of the Conservative Christian wing of my friends and family. Good people who held their noses and voted for Trump not because they’re closet racists or because they believed that Hillary was running a sex ring out of the back of a D.C. pizza shop, but out of concern for the unborn. They believed they were doing the right thing. The Christian thing. How could those people of faith ever reconcile their spiritual walk with voting for a gay president? I don’t know. Seems like the Sermon on the Mount would supersede an obscure line in Romans, but I’m the wrong guy to argue Scripture. Ultimately, I think that anyone who would hold this against him at the ballot box is probably already voting for Trump anyway.

I don’t have a say in the matter. Other than these words. I forfeited my right to participate in our democratic experiment in 2005 when I was arrested for armed robbery. Humiliating but true. But if I did have a vote, I’d be casting it for Mayor Pete. I think he’ll make a terrific president.

Menu

The dude in the next bunk is named Menu. That’s not his government name, but in here nicknames are all that matter. He earned the handle because of the way he takes great pride in coming back from early chow and announcing what’s for dinner.

“All right y’all, listen up!” He pumps chain gang chili mac, beans and carrot coins as if it’s five-star cuisine.

Menu has been to prison seven times. He started smoking crack in the 80s and has been enslaved ever since. Well, at least all the way up till 2015 when he was released the last time.

When you’re released from a Florida prison and you’re indigent, you get $50 bucks and a Greyhound ticket to begin the next chapter of your life. The first five times Menu arrived at the Tampa bus station, he made a beeline straight to the dopeman. On the sixth, he decided to take a different road. One that substituted the temporary bliss of the crack pipe for a job, a home, and church on Sundays. In the land of happy endings this would’ve been enough. In the Sunshine State, not so much.

Here we have outdated war-on-drugs laws still on the books, probation and parole officers trained to violate first and ask questions later, and prison profiteers kicking out big bucks to keep bodies in bunks.

In 2017 Menu was working overtime for a renovation company and missed his curfew. This is what’s known as a technical violation, meaning no law was broken, just a rule. He was still arrested. Despite 21 consecutive clean urinalyses, a vouching boss, and a probation officer who recommended reinstatement, Menu was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole. This is how our paths crossed.

I’ve never met a gentler spirit. Despite growing up in the Jim Crow south, despite his decades-long battle with addiction, despite serving multiple terms in one of the most violent prison systems in America, Menu has somehow managed to remain untouched by hate and bitterness. I wish there were more people like him in here. Hell, I wish I were more like him.

He’s read all four of the Ivey novels and is taking an autographed copy with him when he gets out next month. I feel kinda stupid autographing a book, like I’m Hemingway or somebody, but he insists. And believe me, he never insists on anything. In fact, the entire time we’ve been living next to each other, my locker has been stocked with food, coffee and hygiene items bought with money sent by my loved ones, while his has been virtually empty except for his Bible. Yet he won’t accept so much as a saltine cracker. See why I can’t refuse? I’m just happy he finally asked for something.

He actually asked for two things. He wanted me to help him write to the halfway and transition houses in the Tampa area for a place to go when he gets out. So that’s what I’ve been doing this week. Writing letters seeking room and board for an elderly gentleman who will be starting from scratch in a month. I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Getting out of prison with nothing and no one. Happens everyday, though.

Sometimes I forget how blessed I am.

(Next up: Mi hermanito. Joker.)

Mental illness in prison: Why you should care

I have a friend who struggles with depression. She’s had a rough decade. In 2007 she was in a horrific car accident that killed her husband and left her with numerous broken bones, as well as two young children to raise alone. When a highly addictive painkiller finally ran out, heroin filled the gap and in 2012, she found herself in a women’s correctional facility serving three years.

As happens with many Americans struggling with depression, the doctor recommended Prozac and this, coupled with meditation and exercise, allowed her to begin to put her life back together. A pivotal part of her plan was work release, a program that allows nonviolent inmates to work in society during the final year of incarceration. With an 8- and 10-year-old at home already down one parent, she would be starting all over with nothing and needed to save some money. But in the end, she was denied entry into the work release program because she was prescribed a mood stabilizing drug which raised her psych level within the prison system. Once she became aware of this, she attempted to refuse her medication but it was too late. So a year later, she was released from a maximum security prison with nothing but a Greyhound bus ticket and a $50 check. So long, farewell, we’ll leave a light on for you.

Question: How many of your co-workers are on Zoloft, Celexa, or Prozac? I would guess that a substantial chunk of the American workforce is on some type of SSRI or MAO inhibitor.

I’m sure the Florida Department of Corrections’ intentions are well meaning. Nobody wants a bunch of Thorazine-soaked, shuffling, criminal psych patients drooling over the deep fryer at the local KFC. But there’s an obvious difference between a violent offender on anti-psychotic meds and a single mother struggling with depression.

This lazy, one-size-fits-all policy is a contributor to the recidivism cycle and only hurts the same society it is trying to protect. In addition to the beatings and gassings that have been showing up in the news over the last few years, this is yet another example of the department’s ineptitude regarding the mentally ill population. A complete overhaul is in order.

By the way, the girl? She’s kicking ass out there, despite the odds.

[This post was previously posted on 2/21/17 as Part 5 of Malcolm Ivey’s series “Fixing A Broken Prison System”, which appears under its own tab on this site.]

A transformative craft

“If your life were a book, would you like your character?”

These words have been nibbling at my conscience for years, surfacing at the most inopportune times—while cheating on a girlfriend, stealing from a family member, cooking cocaine in a spoon… The answer was always the same: “No, I would not like my character. I would HATE my character.”

There are few things in this world as unsustainable and soul-sucking as drug abuse. This is far from breaking news. The hard math states that someone in your orbit is suffering right now, be it your child, sibling, significant other, friend, neighbor, co-worker or yourself. For most, the needle and the crack pipe are a life sentence of enslavement. However, there are exceptions. Some find Jesus, others escape through a 12-step program, and I would never underestimate the healing properties in the love of a woman. But for me, the way out was through the written word.

When I first began Consider the Dragonfly I did so in desperation. It was a Hail Mary, a half-court buzzer beater, my last shot to escape the quicksand of my old patterns and do something honorable. The universe gave me the bonus plan. Barely a few pages into the first chapter, the characters shimmered to life. Protagonists and antagonists whispered backstory into my heart, explaining why they were the way they were, confiding secrets and fears and dreams, drawing me deeper into the world of story. And while I was busy being a conduit, head down, scribbling furiously, a sort of alchemy was taking place in my own world. Impulsivity was converted to discipline. Recklessness was exchanged for structure. I was suddenly protective of my remaining brain cells and mournful of those I had squandered. The craft was changing me.

There is something empowering about writing a novel, something spiritual about plugging into the collective consciousness and transcribing the flow of words from the ether, something transformative. I’ve been clean for a few years now. My second book, With Arms Unbound, will be out this summer and I’m presently knee-deep in a new project. Some will say that I’ve merely swapped addictions. Maybe so. I’m cool with that. Because today when that old question pops into my head—“If your life were a book, would you like your character?”—the answer is a resounding “HELL YEAH!”

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com 6/1/14 as “Writing: A transformative craft”.]

Party animal

I live on a steel bunk in a warehouse. Everything I own in this world is in the footlocker beneath me. It ain’t much; a photo album, a stack of letters, a few books. I’ve been in prison 10 years this time. My release date is 2032. A few hazy, drug-soaked months of strip bars, casinos, and fast living cost me most of my adult life.

I run across old friends and associates from that era on the yard sometimes. They look bad — rotten teeth, track marks, gnawed nails on shaky hands. They give me news of other old friends who weren’t as lucky: overdoses, shootings, suicides. Occasionally I’ll recognize the names of women in the arrest report of my hometown newspaper. Those wide-eyed college girls who were just beginning to experiment with coke and ecstasy in 2003 are now haggard streetwalkers, hardened repeat-offender prostitutes.

This is the natural evolution of drug abuse. Cause and effect. I know you’re thinking it won’t happen to you. I thought I was an exception too. Believe me, no one plans on destroying their life and coming to prison. No little kid daydreams about growing up to rob gas stations for dope money, or getting doused with pepper spray and beaten half to death by abusive guards in a confinement cell, or dying alone in a motel room with a needle in his arm… We call getting high “partying” and like any party, there’s always a mess when the party is over. In fact, the bigger the party, the bigger the mess.

The irony is that the kids we label squares and lames and dorks because they refuse to party grow up to be the doctors who resuscitate us when we overdose, the psychologists who attempt to help us put our broken lives back together, the lawyers who represent us in court when we’re arrested, the judges who sentence us to prison, and the men who step into our families and become the fathers and husbands we failed at being.

So if you’re 15 (or 17 or 24) and you’re popping bars, snorting Roxys or dabbling in meth or molly or whatever, this is what middle-aged drug life looks like. Guaranteed. And if you think it won’t happen to you, we can talk more about it when you move into my dorm. The bunk behind mine is open right now. We’ll leave a light on for you. The one from the gun tower.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com 2/1/15.]

Don’t be a lick

Do you know what a “lick” is? Not the generic definition. This has nothing to do with the tongue or fire or even defeating something. I’m talking slang here.

For those of you who have never tasted the misery of being enslaved by a chemical, a lick is what a drug dealer calls his customer. The guy who pawns his mother’s lawnmower for crack money is someone’s lick. So is the woman who sells her body for a 20 rock, or a shot of ice, or a Roxy 30. A drug dealer may pretend to like you, he may act oblivious to your rumpled clothing and declining weight, he may even chill with you for a while after money and merchandise are exchanged. But make no mistake, inwardly he’s smirking at your weakness. Regardless of the illusion of equal footing, this is not some business transaction. You are sick and desperate for what he has in his pocket, and he has all the power. You’re his sucker, his chump, his lick. Pointblank. He’s buying clothes and cars and bling while your life is crumbling all around you.

It’s humiliating to admit this, but I’ve been a lick for most of my life. As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through a 379-month prison sentence for robbing gas stations. Not because I was starving or because there was a recession and I was desperate to feed my family. No. I wish, but no. I was just a lick trying to scrape up money to bring to my dopeman. So you get it, right? Drugs are bad. I know what you’re thinking. “Thank you very much, Diane Sawyer, but this is not breaking news.” There are millions upon millions of stories out there about the soul-sucking consequences of drug abuse.

But this is not an anti-drug rant. This is an anti-lick rant. At the risk of sounding like the illegitimate child of Tipper Gore and Joe McCarthy, I’ll attempt to explain.

The predatory paradigm of dopeman and lick is not restricted to drug culture. It’s everywhere. Millionaire rappers laugh all the way to the bank while the kids who mindlessly, hypnotically repeat their lyrics get shot down in the streets, or come to prison with life sentences for trying to live out these murderous, unsustainable fairy tales that are being spoon-fed to them under the label of “cool.” Metal bands romanticize suicides and overdoses as if they were heroic acts. Violent video games, sexting, internet porn… it makes sense that kids are the biggest licks because they are the most inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. But it’s not just kids. Big Pharma is a billion-dollar industry. Middle Eastern turf wars are reported as ideological clashes but are really all about oil and who gets to sell it to us. Think we’re not China’s licks? Check out the “Made in” sticker on the back of any product sold at the local Super Walmart. Everybody wants a piece.

The Eagles have a terrific lyric in the song Already Gone: “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” In this case, the key is awareness, knowledge, moderation. Don’t be a lick.

[Originally published on malcolmivey.com 11/20/14 as “The case for not being a lick”.]

The truth about spice

I awoke to a shrill and piercing wail, half panicked, half orgasmic. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

I sat up in my bunk and glanced at my watch. It was 5 a.m. The commotion was in the back corner of the dorm. A crowd of inmates was gathered around a young black man whose body was locked in a half-crouch, knees slightly bent, fists clenched, as if he were about to ski the K-12. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

One of the bystanders urged him to snap out of it. Someone forced their way through the crowd and dashed him in the face with a cup of water. When that didn’t work, he was slapped. His distress only increased. The guard frowned through the Plexiglas window of the booth.

Sleep faded and recognition dawned as I watched it all unfold. He wasn’t being attacked or having a meltdown. He was only gooking. No, gooking is not the gerund form of a dated slur, it’s the umbrella term that covers a myriad of strange behavior that goes hand in hand with the drug spice.

If someone is crawling around on the floor, flopping like a fish, mumbling incoherently, seizing, vomiting, or locked up screaming “Oh my God!” over and over, chances are they’re gooking out on spice.

I consider myself a chemical connoisseur. I’ve never met a drug I didn’t like. I started out pinching weed from my dad’s stash, then moved on to blotter acid by the eighth grade. Crack, ecstasy, pills… I doted on each with unconditional love. And whether on this or that side of the razor wire made no difference. I shot cocaine for the first time at age 21 on a prison rec yard with an acoustic guitar in my lap to shield both needle and arm from the gun tower. The first time I snorted heroin was in a prison bathroom. My love affair with dope is well documented. I love it so much that I’m doing 30 years in prison for it.

That being said, spice scares the hell out of me. Ever since it burst on the scene, I’ve watched my fellow inmates have their nervous system attacked, their kidneys fail, their brain function diminish. I’ve watched them hyperventilate and drool and faceplant into the concrete. A potent batch of that shit will have the ambulance in and out of here all day.

But that’s not even the scariest part. The most concerning consequence of the spice epidemic from where I sit is the deadening of hearts. I’m no neuroscientist but I’d be willing to bet that spice suffocates whatever chemical in the brain is responsible for empathy. In a place where kindness and humanity are already scarce to begin with, the last thing we need is a substance to snuff out what little light remains. But spice isn’t just a prison problem, its popularity is exploding everywhere because it doesn’t show up on standard track urinalyses. I’ve just been able to study its disastrous effects day after day in the condensed ecosystem of my prison dorm.

Take it from a dope aficionado: This is no drug. This is a lethal, man-made, brain-eating chemical masquerading as a drug. Big difference.

You know those movies like I Am Legend and World War Z where a contagion creates a sub-human, zombified race that multiplies exponentially? They had it half right. Only the viral spore isn’t from some toxic waste spill or globetrotting bacteria. It’s Yellow Jacket, it’s Red Dragon, it’s the millennial chemical called spice. Smoke up.

The solution

Given what happened in Chicago over the weekend, a continuation of rampant violence that barely makes the news anymore, I wanted to repost this piece I wrote a few months ago. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant. 

The Middle East – Sunnis and Shiites murdering each other. For territory, for power, over ideology. Death tolls rise along with the level of hopelessness. Every day, violence is a fact of life to which the citizens of places like Baghdad and Aleppo have become desensitized. There is no place too sacred for bloodshed. No mosque, no school, no hospital. In addition to sectarian violence, children have grown up watching their cities and villages bombed by foreign drones, their families and neighbors killed or taken away by foreign soldiers. Flames of hate are fanned by radical clerics. An insidious “us vs. them” mentality seeps into the soul of the people.

The fear and distrust flow both ways, feeding off each other. Too many soldiers have watched their comrades fall to IEDs and sniper fire. Too many service members have witnessed the carnage of suicide bombings.

America – Drug pushers and gang members murdering each other. For territory, for power, for street cred. Death tolls rise along with the level of hopelessness. Every day, violence is a fact of life to which the citizens of places like Chicago and Oakland have become desensitized. There is no place too sacred for drive-by shootings. No church, no park, no school bus stop. In addition to gang violence and inner city drug wars, children have grown up having their doors kicked in by narcotics officers, seeing their neighbors slammed on car hoods, electrocuted by tasers, sometimes murdered by police, their fathers and brothers taken away in cop cars, often never to return. Flames of hate are fanned by ratings-driven news channels, through bullhorns of activists, and the microphones of rap stars.

The fear and distrust flow both ways, feeding off each other. Too many cops have seen their comrades murdered in the line of duty, in shootouts and chases, and more recently in cold blood, executed over their uniforms.

There is no simple fix to this complex and generational problem. A congressional hearing won’t solve it. Nor will any new law. The American way of throwing truckloads of tax dollars at the situation won’t make it go away either. But there is a solution: Love.

Don’t roll your eyes. Naïve and idyllic as it sounds, if every pastor, teacher, mentor, and concerned citizen formed a government-backed coalition, a movement to ensure that every inner city kid in America is loved, nurtured, and taught respect for human life, 20 years from now, we would see a major downscale in violence, hate, and intolerance.

This is no hippy-liberal, peace-and-love idea. It takes balls to go into high-crime areas and mentor children. Volunteers could be robbed, shot, raped, murdered. But we have missionaries and aid workers traveling to the Middle East every day. Kayla Mueller, a young American Doctors Without Borders worker in Syria who was kidnapped and eventually killed by ISIS, said: “For as long as I live, I will not allow this suffering to be normal…” Her same heroic philosophy needs to be aimed at America’s inner cities.

“Great idea, Malcolm. So why don’t you do it?”

Because I’m in prison. But from this side of the razor wire, things are crystal clear. My dormitory is full of 19-year-old kids with life sentences. Unraised, uneducated, unloved. Many of them left children behind who will grow up the same way. These are young men who laugh at domestic terror attacks and applaud when police are gunned down. As cold-blooded and evil as this sounds, it’s a problem that will continue to grow exponentially if not confronted at its roots. Not with force and intolerance, but with love and compassion.

In my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, a story that deals largely with race, there are three sections titled “The Other America.” But the truth is, there is no “other America.” There’s only one America. No them, only us. It’s time to start investing in ALL of our children.