Providence. Washington. New York. Breath. Catching.

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I flew out of JFK the day after the New York primaries.
Still burnt from the rally on Sunday.
Five hours in Prospect Park on a perfect spring day.
It felt for a moment like Sanders might win.
I shouted like an American when he walked on that stage.
Noisy enthusiasm in groups mostly makes me blush.
But I almost got there at that Brooklyn rally surrounded by 30,000 hopeful lefties all yelling for a different kind of democracy.

I couldn’t write in New York City.
I couldn’t properly THINK.

Partly it was flinging myself at New York the way I did.
The beautiful, noisy, exhausting bastard.

Partly it was the constant effort of trying to get my head around the contradictions of a mind-bendingly optimistic country that also majors in human despair.

And ya know…partly it was all the beer.

Danni and I walked through Harlem in the freezing rain last Tuesday. The part of Harlem where people are missing a lot of teeth. Waiting outside methadone clinics and court rooms and boarded up shopfronts.
All movement and spitting and unhinged shouting.
The cop outside the courthouse chastised us for standing too close to the court door. Then gave helpful directions to the best soul-food restaurant in Harlem.
When we thanked him he told us to stay safe.
So I told him to stay safe also.
He patted his gun and said, “I think I’ll be okay”.

I sat in on a community meeting on Thursday night.
Maybe 50 formerly incarcerated people, residents of an old New York reintegration service, crowded around a big white table.
The guest speaker was a New York Times journalist who had written an exposé of police and prison brutality. After he finished talking, people were invited to share their stories. And at some point I realised I was flinching. Repeatedly. Because every single person in that room had a story. Of horrific violence. In jails, prisons and police cells. Every. One.

There are services here that are disparaged by people who think they’re too soft;
“Hug-a-thug” programs they call them.
Funny.
In amongst the mean.

In one service I spoke to a staff member, born and raised in Harlem who had spent over thirty years in and out of prison. He had been addicted and homeless and broken and then when he came out of prison a few years ago he was exhausted. He didn’t want to go back to prison. He wanted to do something else. He wanted to be something else.
He talked mostly about the worker who had helped him bust this cycle
Who had stuck around even when he messed up. Relapsed. Lost it. The usual.
He said the worker had showed him love.
And that he hadn’t seen a whole lot of love in his life.
And when he said that his eyes filled with tears.

The thing is that those hug-a-thug programs are doing something so basic.
And so profoundly right.
And mostly what that is, is that they do not see the work that they are doing as being with thugs.
Or criminals.
Or offenders.

They refuse to define someone solely by their crime or their history of incarceration. And in a country that has perpetual punishment and discrimination for formerly incarcerated people built into the systems of social security, housing, employment and welfare, this is not an easy position to hang on to.  There are still states in the US where a felony conviction means you can never vote.

For millions of people in North America, the worst thing you ever did can define the way you are treated for the rest of your life.

The hug-a-thug services get that if that is how you treat people, then that is what people will believe about themselves. And if that is what people believe about themselves (and they know how to make money through the economies of crime, and they know how to be in prison, and then they can’t get a legitimate job, and they can’t access social security or housing, and no-one is in their corner) it is pretty mad to expect people to navigate their way out of the criminal justice system and into the community on their own.

When identity is created through a lifetime of poverty, and social exclusion, and then cemented by state institutions which as it turns out regularly beat you up, finding a different way to be and live is really fucking hard.

But what the successful reintegration services also get is that if you stop defining someone by their offending or their past, and instead you ask them to tell you who they are outside of that, and who they want to be, then you have yourself a starting point for change.

And if  you add systemic advocacy, practical support and genuine hope to this mix, then the prospect of staying out of the criminal justice system can dramatically shift; from the realm of the miraculous into a space of concrete possibility.

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