And yet, in this case, the words carry exceptionally correct meaning. It would be difficult to qualify what we see in the surveillance video as anything but evil, and therefore the assailants as anything but subhuman. And yet, these young men live and breathe. People would be warranted in labeling them despicable. And yet, as a person of color I still look on with a wary eye toward the descriptives.
The Queens is not the Bronx. And my lived experience is not nearly relatable to ‘A Monstrous Machete Attack.’ So in these next lines I do not mean to make comparisons. However, growing up in Queens, I, on more than one occasion, witnessed a wolf pack (to use the term employed against the five boys convicted in the Central Park 5 case) descend upon an innocent person. I have also watched on as fierce one-on-ones devolved into brutal ten-on-ones in not-so-open, premeditated brawls or gang-affiliated attacks. These visceral viewings stay with you. They are ugly. And yet, violence ceases to be a word when anticipated in your everyday.
So I hold up a critical lens to the news reporters’ and pundits’ phraseology proclaiming Junior’s killing as disgusting, brutal, vicious. While they are spot on, I innately know something is missing in these pronouncements. It is the same something I feel missing when, on the other side of the explanatory spectrum, we hear the liberal toting of “we just didn’t get to them early enough.” I am surrounded by the reductive, fault-placing arguments of failed education, broken homes, and depressive environments, which are forwarded to give reason to an incompressible act of violence. I will hear all the rationalization for their criminality and behavior being the result of a lack of resources. In my little corner of the world that lack will be held as a further need for ‘positive arts intervention’ or some other term for creative exploration or self-expression that lives within the quotations as a solution to “underprivileged.” This side of the conversation, too, misses something.
“They killed my son. My son was a good child, innocent,” starts the seemingly pre-scripted monologue of Junior’s mother. Why do parents always feel the need to say that first—a clarification of undeserved-ness that puts both speaker and listener at ease? She seems empty to me when I watch her speak, so I do sense a distanced (and at once startled) search for words that lead to our presumed “he was a good child.” But his mother Leandra Feliz’s words later take a stranger turn:
“They have to make sure when they are going to kill somebody, they have to make sure who [they] catch… the right person.”
Death and murder here, in these words, are not the unexpected or unwanted outcomes… only the target is — her innocent son. Death ceases to be an abstract concept when anticipated in your everyday.
Maybe these young men are half-dead. Imagine for yourself what would have to exist (or not) in your heart in order to wield a machete with that intention—to take a life in such an abrupt, raw, insensible way. Evil? No… that’s too easy an explanation. There must be an emptiness. I want to be careful not to delineate some pathology — historically this kind of diagnosis has so often been utilized as an assessment of the abilities, successes and failures of young black and brown people. I am not a therapist, and while my work deals with cognition, I refuse to speak about my practice in relation to arts therapy.
For the sake of this essay, then, I need to describe my work. And forgive me if I frame stated goals with overly institutional language. As a diversion program, operating in conjunction with the downtown Brooklyn criminal court, Assembly, the program that I run in partnership with the non-profit Recess, offers young people, ages 16-24 and caught up in the justice system, an inroad to art and connections to working artists while serving as an alternative to incarceration. Once participants complete the program, prosecutors may close and seal their cases, allowing our youth to avoid an adult record. What is unique about Recess’ approach to providing this program is that participants may stay involved through paid, long-term engagement as part of Peer Leadership and/or Artist Apprenticeship tracks. Before the offer of this continuation, youth must participate in a four-session, court-mandated program. The curriculum I utilize during these sessions targets the ways our young people describe themselves and their experiences as ‘criminal,’ and through a series of storytelling and performance-based workshops attempts to give them the awareness and tools — emotional, physical, and mental — to tell their personal stories on their own terms, introducing some level of subjectivity. The paid employment opportunities complement and build upon the storytelling and performance skills they gain during the mandated workshops. These opportunities offer our young people a chance to work closely with our artists and then present their work in our public gallery. They also develop independent projects with our artists; work as art handlers and apprentices for Recess artists; and have the opportunity to become peer leaders in future iterations of the Assembly program, taking ownership of the curriculum, leading parts of program sessions, and serving as mentors to their peers.
As I write this, it still excites and moves me to be part of an organization that is owning the work—extending what would otherwise just be a program to the formation of relationships that might guide these individuals onto better life circumstances. But I/we cannot truly provide a new lease on life. I fully acknowledge that while we may successfully close one case, each individual’s experience with the justice system is compounded by poverty and violence in their surroundings, equating an ongoing relationship with law enforcement.
Still, we try to locate as many areas where we might help. But what I often witness in our participants, as I did with the young men that surrounded me in my neighborhood in Queens (the same young men responsible for senseless violence) is their apparent need to selfsabotage. Of course, there are factors that inhibit their daily activities, but the consistency of missing a court date, or job interview, or school appointment can, at some point, only be described as such. But to explain these self-placed landmines as an internalized expectation of failure—a comfort in just maintaining or surviving, rather than confronting a challenge that stands in front of their opportunities—is also too simplifying. They do wish for more… for peace. And yet, consequence ceases to be an idea when none is expected in your everyday.
When one feels abandoned, what accountability is left — to family, community, self?
When one only sees a tomorrow that is identical to today, what possibility moves beyond the current reality — in its deficits, violence, accusations of guilt?
When one feels betrayed, what relationship must be held as sacred — however loyal, friendly, generous?
I often ask where choice resides in these acts of abandonment. Maybe the choice to selfsabotage still corresponds to some elective state. When life is devalued so consistently there seems to be an almost heightened ability to turn off for the sake of self-preservation. Does this shutdown mode then somehow manifest itself again in these acts of self-sabotage, as an active reclaiming of choice or refusal of the little agency they may have over their lives? If a young person, their humanity diminished, enacts a choice to shutdown and self-preserve, then where is the linkage between choice and conscious (or subconscious) acts of self-destruction, whether small (missing of court date) or large (the act of killing)? I cannot answer these questions. But I know that to be half-dead is the result of not only being disregarded but despised for a lifetime, however short. Let’s call them monsters. It’s easier to condemn them than see them in ourselves. The young men who killed Junior were, every day, an instance away from the in and out of a blade into someone’s body. We are fixated on the grandness of a machete. But such inflicted pain is just as dramatic with a lone fist. I have seen it. Only the mechanics are different. The act of murder we witness on the surveillance footage, as sickening as it may feel, should not be perceived as an isolated event. To be half-dead is to only see the harm that must be executed. Even the necessary venom becomes secondary. They were given a duty and it gave meaning. Indeed, prison gives them something to be a part of (in the same manner gang affiliation gave them belonging) and certainly more of an outlook (if not meaning) than the streets ever did. At least in jail the end is in the beginning, whereas in the streets every day brings a ceaseless unknowing of what new pain may lie ahead. Is this the effect of a limited imagination? One in which they are incapable of or refuse to see any possibility in life? This, also, would be too easy an explanation. Let’s talk about imagination then.
No job, no internship, no consultation, no amount of money…. no singular opportunity can awaken the dead. How then do we inspire? Imagination is not a given. While we (a generalized we) often lament the loss of imagination — the ability to dream, pretend, visualize — as we transition to adulthood, there is a different loss that occurs when the tools for imagination are systemically stripped away. To be half-dead is to have all possibilities limited to the extent that one can only translate expectations and perceptions of the world through limited means—through a limited language. Let’s not forget that street code is a language. And to eliminate a rival in a very particular, viscous manner still requires imagination. It’s an imaginary that deviates from the positive, however, translated through a lived experience that only sees life and death as a chess game devoid of emotionality and consequence. Life ceases to be an asset when not anticipated in your everyday. These young men who hacked and stabbed at Junior’s body, live and breathe. And yet, somewhere in my own psyche, I know, based on my own lived experience, something was cut off in their minds, bodies and spirits. I won’t call it ‘soul.’ That would be too easy an explanation. For these young men there is an emptiness. To speak of consequence, aspiration, possibility… is entirely off the mark.
So, of course, I am left with the question of what I, as an artist, can provide or propose as a solution. “What are you good for?” you might ask. If I am writing this down and sharing, it can’t be for my own good. Artists are now asked to provide answers when questions have always been more of our terrain. I am not entirely opposed to this new role. But what I seek is not necessarily an answer that has yet to be articulated but rather the holes in other people’s reasoning. It is here that I believe I can be wholly useful. What I know is that, while imagination is a gift for all, it is not a given for some. Those tools have been slowly removed. So to inspire we need to work much harder. We need to fail and fail again alongside our young people. I often feel defeated in my work. But I also know that I can provide an example. I don’t try to teach so much as I try to exhibit a pattern of thought and a rhythm of existence that might bring joy. I cannot guarantee any young person a tomorrow of promise. And yet, I still try to find ways to translate the everyday into something that carries more meaning than a machete.