This is Kabir's America. It is our America. And our shame.
Robert "Kabir" Luma was 18 when he found himself in the wrong car with the wrong people. He would pay for that misjudgment with 16 years and 54 days of his life, locked away for a crime he did not participate in and did not know was going to take place. Released from prison, he was tossed onto the street, without financial resources and, because of fines and fees imposed on him by the court system, $7,000 of debt. He ended up broke in a homeless shelter in Newark, populated with others who could not afford a place to live, addicts and the mentally ill. The shelter was filthy, infested with lice and bedbugs.
"You have to chain your food up in the refrigerator," he said, wearing a worn, ripped sweatshirt, when I met him at the Newark train station. "There's a chain on the door. There's no stove. There's one microwave that is on its way out. It stinks. I'm trying to stay positive."
Kabir his nickname means "big" in Arabic and was given to him in prison because of his powerful 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound frame lives in the netherworld of America's criminal caste system. He is branded for life as a felon, although he was locked away for a crime that in most other countries would have seen him serve a tiny sentence or no sentence at all. He is denied public assistance, food stamps, public housing, the right to vote, the right to serbtaining hundreds of professional licenses, burdened with old fees, fines and court costs he cannot pay, as well as losing the right to be free from employment discrimination because of his record.
Kabir is one of America's tens of millions of second-class citizens, most of whom are poor people of color, who have been stripped of basic civil and human rights and are subject to legalized discrimination for life. ve on a jury, the ability to collect Social Security for the 40-hours a week he worked in prison, barred from o One-third of all black men in America are classified as ex-felons. Kabir, through no fault of his own, unless being poor and black is a fault, lives trapped in a social hell from which there is almost no escape. This social hell fuels the street protests around the country as much as the outrage over indiscriminate murders by police an average of three a day and police violence. It is a hell visited on nearly all of those trapped in what Malcom X called our "internal colonies."
This hell was constructed by corporate billionaires and their lackeys in the two major political parties who betrayed the working class and working poor to strip communities of jobs and social services, rewrite laws and tax codes to amass staggering fortunes and consolidate their political and economic power at the expense of the citizenry. While they were fleecing the country, these billionaires, along with the politicians they bought and owned, including Joe Biden, methodically built brutal mechanisms of social control, expanding the prison population from 200,000 in 1970 to 2.3 million today and transforming police into lethal paramilitary forces of internal occupation. Kabir is one victim, but he is one victim too many.
I met Kabir in 2013 in a college credit class I taught through Rutgers University in East Jersey State Prison. A devoted listener to the Pacifica Station in New York City, WBAI, he had heard me on the station and told his friends they should take my class. The class, which because of Kabir attracted the most talented writers in the prison, wrote a play called Caged that was put on by Trenton's Passage Theater in May 2018. The play was sold out nearly every night, filled with audience members who knew too intimately the pain of mass incarceration. It was published this year by Haymarket Books. It is the story of the cages, the invisible ones on the streets, and the very real ones in prison, that define their lives.
Kabir's sweet and gentle disposition and self-deprecating, infectious sense of humor made him beloved in the prison. Life had dealt him a bum hand, but nothing seemed capable of denting his good nature, empathy and compassion. He loves animals. One of his saddest childhood experiences, he told me, came when he was not allowed to visit a farm with his class because he had ringworm. He dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.
But the social hell of urban America is the great destroyer of dreams. It batters and assaults the children of the poor. It teaches them that their dreams, and finally they themselves, are worthless. They go to bed hungry. They live with fear. They lose their fathers, brothers and sisters to mass incarceration and at times their mothers. They see friends and relatives killed. They are repeatedly evicted from their dwellings; the sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in 2016 a rate of four every minute. One in four families spend 70 percent of their income on rent. A medical emergency, the loss of a job or a reduction in hours, car repairs, funeral expenses, fines and tickets and there is financial catastrophe. They are hounded by creditors, payday lenders and collection agencies, and often forced to declare bankruptcy.
This social hell is relentless. It wears them down. It makes them angry and bitter. It drives them to hopelessness and despair. The message sent to them by the dysfunctional schools, the decrepit housing projects, the mercenary financial institutions, gang violence, instability and ever-present police abuse is that they are human refuse. That Kabir and my students can retain their integrity and humanity under this assault, that they can daily defy this hell to make something of their lives, that they are the first to reach out to others with compassion and concern, make them some of the most remarkable and admirable people I have ever known.
Kabir refers to his legal name, Robert Luma, as his slave name was raised by his mother in Newark. He only met his father, who was from Haiti and spoke little English, three times. Kabir does not speak Creole. They could barely communicate. His father died in Haiti while Kabir was in prison. Kabir was the middle of three children. The family lived on the first floor of a house at Peabody Place, a few blocks from the Passaic River. His great-aunt, who had adopted his mother, and who he refers to as his grandmother, lived on the second floor with her husband. His grand-uncle's pension and savings provided for the family. But by the time of his mother's generation, well-paying jobs that came with benefits and pensions, and with them stability and dignity, were gone.
"That was one of my gripes against my mother. Damn, if you can't save me, and my father's not around, who the hell gonna save me?"
There were difficulties. His mother, who often left him in the care of his grandmother, cycled through boyfriends, some of whom were abusive.
He was teased and bullied when he was small because of his tattered second-hand clothes. Sensitive and introspective, the bullying shattered his childhood. It made it hard to pay attention. He would grow up to be big and strong, aided by his passion for weightlifting, but the awkward silences that punctuate his stories of bullying show that the pain is still there.
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