|Luis J Rodriguez|
Afscme Local 444, retired
Myself and a young friend paid a visit to our local youth center last Thursday. It's a relatively new center and I have been there before to watch or pick up my grandson at his little league game. The occasion was to hear a presentation by a former LA gang member who has written numerous books about gang life and also speaks to young people and other audiences about his experiences.
I had not heard of Luis J Rodriguez before despite having been involved in a campaign some years ago to free an imprisoned gang member framed by the LAPD at or around the time he was organizing truce's following the Rodney King beating.
I was very skeptical as it is so common for reformed drug addicts and ex prison inmates to find Jesus, urging the rest of us to do likewise while admonishing young people and gang members for their bad behavior and individual choices. It's a version of the "You're in control of your own destiny" approach.
There were a lot of youth present, mostly Latino but not exclusively. And from the minute he spoke, it was clear, Luis Rodruigez was someone special as he made a point of announcing that he wasn't someone special and any of the young people present were capable of doing what he has and better. Unlike the religious convert though, he laid bare the reality of the world the disenfranchised find themselves in and how these conditions are at the root of the poverty, alienation and violence that consumes so many working class communities and especially communities of color. He talked of his life in the gang world, his addiction to heroin and alcohol. He explained with great passion and honesty about how he had been conditioned to hate anyone that "looked like me" that he was consumed with self hatred. This is something we should all recognize as we live in a society that falsely claims that we are where we are solely through our own individual choices so when we fail we blame, and hate ourselves. There is no "society" as Thatcher said.
He described how the most amazing events in his community during that period were funerals, they were the "best thing going" he said, not just the color and sombre festivity that are these events but for a moment people were brought together through death, fathers to pay respect to dead sons and friends and relatives who gathered to pay their respects.
Brother Rodriguez told the audience that we need to "bring back our power as people, as working class" which is a refreshing change as here in the US we are all supposed to be middle class, there's no working class here it seems. He led a savage attack on the prisons telling the youth present that these institutions are full of young people, "because they have no means of survival." He also explained how racism and the destruction of one's culture contributes to the self-hatred and alienation and that this has to be fought and overcome. "I am not Spanish" he said and explained how he has connected to his roots, to the indigenous culture that has been so decimated since the European invasions and the coming of capital. He spoke of the falsification of history and how the indigenous societies have historically been portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty. It reminded me of the absence of all working class history in the education system, the victor writes the history books as they say and the capitalist class creates a world history after its own image and that includes its views on race, sex, and other issues.
Brother Rodriguez read a few poems he has written including one written in honor of three poets, Jose Montoya, David Henderson and a third Puerto Rican poet whose name has escaped me. I wish I had video'd this reading as it was very moving. The working class, no matter what our religion or ethnic background, express ourselves with great passion and emotion once we overcome our class oppression, compounded by racial and gender discrimination, and speak what we feel and have lived. I had to laugh when brother Rodriguez spoke of not knowing what poetry was or never using a comma as I have a friend, also from a rural working class background, who is not fond of them; "Comma's are useful" a good friend told him after reviewing his draft of a book he wrote.
I regret I didn't take better notes as Rodriguez said so much more but I bought his first book, Always Running and just started it this morning. He says in the introduction, "As I see it, the battle lines are between the idealized, superficial and insular minded way of looking at the world (which many schools and mainstream culture impose on our children and the rest of us), and the actual conditions of our lives with all its multiplicity, struggle shading and nuance. Most children recognize the hypocrisy of emphasizing a linear, clean and de-sexed past while they confront daily the muddy, uncertain and hybrid truths." This was in response to numerous attempt by conservatives and the establishment to ban Always Running from school libraries and bookstores. We must return to objective reality.
"Whatever involves social discomfort, emotional depth or hard thinking is cut out." he writes in the latest introduction to Always Running. "Everything is directed toward "normalcy...", he writes:
".... the folding in to the fast paced, material and status oriented capitalist value system.........our humanity is sacrificed, little by little."
Luis Rodriguez recognizes the genocidal offensive waged against the native population of these lands but this is merely recognizing history as it is; he excludes no one from his vision of a better world. Like many of us, brother Rodriguez rejects the warehousing of human beings that capitalism has discarded; "Censorship, repression and suppression simply don't work" he writes offering a sampling of alternatives that do, "All out creativity, poetic expression; access to life giving resources; truly meaningful and respectful relationships; purposeful and life-affirming schooling and work (jobs and more jobs); decent health care; drug and psychiatric treatment as needed; and truly rehabilitative and initiatory practices are a few things that do work."
And he correctly lays the blame where it belongs telling his young audience "The people who are supposed to be representing us are not representing us" and that we "Have to come in with something new" and "..bring the young people to the table."
I have no idea of brother Rodriguez's views about socialism, but he clearly recognizes the failure of capitalism and how it destroys culture and our humanity. He doesn't absolve the individual from certain responsibility, but he understands that decisons we make are more often than not made under circumstances not of our own choosing. His admits his own failures to himself and his family as his son fell in to gang culture, this makes the challenge that much harder that's all. We should remember that the capitalist class has their gangs, much more ruthless: the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and others.
My only clarification here would be that given the nature of US politics and that in the electoral arena there are only capitalist parties to choose from in essence; workers and all specially oppressed sections of society have no representatives. While there might be honest individuals in the Democratic Party, this party represents capital and the changes brother Rodriguez talks of cannot be realized through this vehicle. At the meeting I went to, brother Rodriguez announced he will run for governor of California.
I am looking forward to reading his first book and urge readers to have your union or any other social organization speak to your members but particularly your youth. They will be inspired by him.
Check out his books here and his website here