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 serve on a jury, the ability to collect Social Security for the 40-hours a week he worked in prison, barred from obtaining 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.
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 — he 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.
There were difficulties. His mother, who often left him in the care of his grandmother, cycled through boyfriends, some of whom were abusive.
“That was one of my gripes against my mother”, he said. “Damn, if you can’t save me, and my father’s not around, who the hell gonna save me?”
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.
Catastrophe struck in fifth grade when his great-uncle, who assumed the role of his grandfather, died. Stability evaporated. They lost their home. They moved to a dilapidated house on Hudson Street. On the night they moved in, it caught fire. They lost everything.
They moved back to squat in their old house with nothing. The family eventually moved to North Park Street in East Orange. Life became a series of sudden evictions and moves. He was shipped from school to school. The family squatted in abandoned houses without electricity that were also homes to drug dealers and addicts.
“It killed my spirit to live,” he said. “I used to contemplate suicide. I felt I had no haven. Everywhere I go, there was some type of abuse. Even at home, there was no peace. Why be here? What’s the point of being here? My family life is in disarray. No father. My mother is ignoring me. The other family members we do have, they’re not really present. Our structure was so damaged, there’s no help from my aunt or uncle. We were all mixed up, living in our own world.”
One day, when Kabir was 8 or 9, a man was speaking to his mother on the porch. Another man pulled up in a car and started shooting at the man speaking with his mom. The man with the gun chased his victim into the house.
“My little brother is in the tub naked,” Kabir said. “I’m in the living room next to the hallway. My grandmother is upstairs. He starts shooting. I run, get my little brother. He gets out the tub naked. We haul out the back and run next door. My mother was in the hallway pleading for them to stop. It was one of those things. I can’t feel safe in my own dwelling.”
His schooling effectively ended in the eighth grade. He began smoking weed, “being disruptive, being a clown.” He was “very depressed.” He drank most of the night and slept most of the day.
“I hustled a little bit, selling drugs,” he said. “I was never good at that. I was not patient. I’m idle-minded. I’m more of a philosopher. I have a heart for people. I’m not a street person, even though I was in the streets.”
Three months after he turned 18, he was arrested. It was his first arrest. He was in a car with three older men. The older men decided to rob “Ol’ Man Charlie,” who ran a convenience store. The older men went into the store. He remained behind in the car listening to the song “Wanksta,” by rapper 50 Cent.
“They come back to the car,” he remembered. “They got this spooked face. They said, ‘Man, I had to kill Charlie. He was reaching. Mu told me to hit him.’ In my head, it didn’t even seem real. I didn’t witness it. It was like they were telling me a story. I couldn’t fathom it. Even though I knew they were going into the store to rob him. I’m in a daze. We continue to ride around in this car. They hoppin’ out robbing people. They don’t stop. At the same time, I feel like I’m stuck. If I leave, there could be repercussions.”
The police brought him in for questioning. He was taken to a room that had contents from the crime scene, including the gun used to kill Charlie. He tried to be as vague as possible, but he didn’t want to lie.
“Now there’s a room full of these motherfuckers,” he said. “There had to be seven of them. This old, fat white dude. He had blotches on his skin. Like he smoked too much. As soon as he walks in, he just smacked the shit out of me. He’s fat and tall. He slapped me good time. Pow! He said, ‘This shit don’t make no sense. You need to tell us what the fuck is going on.’ In my head, I felt so guilty about the whole ordeal. He slaps the shit out of me. Pow! It was the first time I was arrested for anything. I just come out and tell them what happened. They do the ballistics, eventually it comes back a match. The gun was used for that crime that killed Charlie. They start collecting people. One of the last people were my two [co-defendants].”
“I felt guilty as hell,” he said. “Someone’s life was taken behind this shit. If I were intelligent, I would have known this was the cost of robbing somebody. You got the power of life or death in your hands. I snitched, rolled over. The guilt was more than anything. They eventually started grabbing people. I got charged with felony murder. A homicide in the act of committing a robbery. Even though I never left the car. I never had a weapon discharged. But the law charges everyone there equally.”
He spent three-and-a-half years in the county jail before being sentenced and going to prison.
“My strongest asset is that I have a connection to people,” he said. “At times, I can be a little depressed because it’s overwhelming. I felt like I never got out of poverty. You know what I mean? If it wasn’t my upbringing, it was prison. Now I’m spit back out as an adult. I never really achieved anything I feel a grown man should have. I can’t drive. I was never taught to drive. I went away at 18. I don’t have my own place. I’m 35. If it ain’t a room, it’s the shelter.
“When you meet people of affluence, some people with money, how they look at you. You can almost pierce their eyes and read their mind. You know, when people feel like they’re above you. You know when you’re treated wrong, whether it’s in school, whether it’s in a store, or in a certain neighborhood where they feel like you don’t belong. And then, you’re constantly fed these lily-white dreams on TV, knowing this is the farthest thing from our reality. Then we look at black reality — it’s like they make mockery out of it. It’s either overly funny so it’s desensitized. Or, it’s not even true.”
The pandemic created an urgent need for frontline workers, those desperate enough to work for low wages and accept being expendable. Kabir, a few weeks ago, was able to get a job in a supermarket. On the days he has to be at work at 6:00 am he walks over a mile of the 2.3 miles from where he is living to the supermarket because of the erratic bus service at that hour in Newark.
It is dark when he sets out. He walks past the unhoused, which sometimes include children, sleeping on the street, the handfuls of prostitutes trying to scare up a few clients, and the junkies passed out, propped up against buildings. This is his America. It is our America. And our shame.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He wrote a weekly column for the progressive website Truthdig for 14 years until he was fired along with all of the editorial staff in March 2020. [Hedges and the staff had gone on strike earlier in the month to protest the publisher’s attempt to fire the Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, demand an end to a series of unfair labor practices and the right to form a union.] He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.”