They must think me radical, a militant bent on mayhem. They could not be further from the truth. They think I am eager for a fight when I am only eager to confront injustice. They say I would be better served by prayer. I wish they were right.
There is a time for prayer. When my oldest son deployed to Afghanistan in June 2013, I prayed with both hands. Fear permeated each and every one of my days – fear for his wife who waited for him, fear for his mother, Jane, for his brother and sisters and me. I prayed for his safe return. In December 2103, just days before Christmas, my prayers were answered. Prayer was all I had. It brought my precious son home.
I know of prayer. I was raised in the First Baptist Church of Woodland Park, under the ministry of Rev. James Gibson. I have been praying since I was able to talk.
There is a time for prayer. There is also a time to fight. On May 18, 2013, I launched a hunger strike to protest Michigan’s treatment of its prisoner population. I did not stop praying. I simply thought it was time to pus some skin in the game, besides. That strike lasted for 88 days; during which time I refused every one of the 264 meals offered to me. Letters poured in from around the country, many imploring me to “Let God handle it.”
I did not stop there. I wrote articles and circulated them to media outlets, seeking to publicize the grievances of prisoners around Michigan, and across the country. After publishing one such piece, “Granddaddy, Come Home,” which decried destructive Michigan Department of Corrections policies, people said to me, “That will make them madder…you should have prayed. I wrote, “Ma Parole” and “Take These Truths…,” exposing improprieties in Michigan Parole Board practices. My people were dismayed, thinking such language might diminish my chances of getting a parole five years from now. Why should it, unless we have fallen into an alternative universe where truth confines, and falsity “sets us free”?
My people want me to come home from prison, but they seem to think that I will happen through prayer. For our children in Afghanistan, prayer is all we have. Wanting freedom for eligible prisoners in Michigan takes more; their incarceration has that endless quality about it…like slavery. Back in the day, the slaves were told to “pray for freedom.” They prayed for 250 years, and the grip of slavery only tightened. Then, along came Abraham Lincoln. He prayed, too. He also armed a million Union soldiers and sent them south. Prayer did not end slavery; the Union soldiers did. (The other side prayed as hard as Lincoln, but they ran out of men.)
The people who tell me, “Just pray,” do not feel the multitude of live being sucked dry by the greatest prison system on Earth. They do not know of the desecrating of lives being committed beneath the nose of our Constitution – a desecration sanctioned by laws that have been corrupted to conform to a punishment regime; not for the public good, except that public is infected with the same mean-spiritedness that has led this nation to endlessly hound and persecute poor and minority peoples since its inception.
I fight against this insidious example of a government’s trampling of a besieged minority to satisfy the bloodlust of a discordant American majority. And they say to me, “Just pray.” We have hundreds of thousands of people in U.S. prisons being held beyond their out-dates – people desperate for a second chance at life; a chance at redemption – that are being held in bondage for no other reason than it is politically expedient to keep them there. And impassive Americans think prayer will end this human rights abuse. Do they prefer prayer because prayer leaves all of the heavy lifting to God? If people back in the 1860’s felt the way Americans feel today, slavery might have lasted another 100 years.
Face it: Even Abraham, patriarch of the Jews, and icon of the Christian faith, knew that there was a time to pray and a time to fight. “Time” does not presume the correct day, or hour, but rather the moment when all signs point to a “moment of truth.” I have been in fights before. There is something priceless about going into a fight armed with the feeling that you are right.
Once, I tore a large bronze penis off of the walls of a local tavern. It caused quite a stir. The owner of the establishment, four hundred pound behemoth named Woody Shack, was white. The community that tavern served – my community – was African-American. The penis – fully three feet long with testicles the size of ostrich eggs, protruded out over the bar. They were a caricature of Woody’s own body parts. When I ripped it down, his bouncer friend came at me in a fury:
“What the hell you doin’ tearin’ down Woody’s bar!” he screamed. (I was the only black man in the place. I carried no weapon; I have never carried a weapon.) That I did not take a step back must have startled the bouncer, and the other whites, besides. They stopped in their tracks. I simply looked them in the eye.
“Woody can hang anything in this bar he wants!” the bouncer declared, leaning forward once more.
No, he can’t,” I said.
Later, I imagined the big bouncer thinking, “Maybe Carter was right.” Of course, I was right. What would possess someone to hang such an abomination on the walls of any respectable community? That I ripped it out of the wall (as splinters flew) and threw it over the bar was fitting. That happened in Newaygo County during the summer of ’87. I feel just as right about my fight today.
What is happening to prisoners and their families in Michigan is an abomination. It has become a bronze penis sticking out of the wall. And no one does anything about it. The public is oblivious to any that doesn’t affect them personally. Well-intentioned politicians fear anything that might get them a “soft-on-crime” label. Even prisoners are afraid of losing “small comforts”, similar to how the slave feared being sold to the master in the “next county” if he complained.
I do not break their rules; neither do I fear these people – not the warden, the parole board, the governor, nor the president. My only fear is that I would fear standing up for what is right out of fear that I might cross those who are wrong. My hope is that I will always stand up for myself, my family, and my community – regardless of the odds against me – whenever it is time.