Saturday, March 21, 2009

I AM The People

Back in the seventies, when I was neck-deep in the prison movement, I was sent at one point to ask to see a particular prisoner at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. I was a minister at the time in a church that had been founded in the federal prison system. It had been recognized in court as a church and therefore, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prison authorities had to allow our ministers access to any prisoner anywhere (even in solitary confinement) for whom we were the "chaplain of record." I was Joseph Harry Brown's chaplain of record and, by law, they had to admit me. Needless to say, it was some dance we were all doing.

I would show up, ask to see a prisoner, be denied, and our lawyers would take the case to court. Then the USP administrators would move the prisoner to another joint (making the case moot because the prisoner would now be located in a different judicial district) and the process would begin again. Nevertheless, it had to be done to force the issue.

I was pretty nerved out when I got off the bus in front of Leavenworth. I was alone. I was dressed in white with the crest of the church over my heart. And I was afraid they were going to arrest me for something, put me in jail, and have me killed. I knew well that far weirder and more illegal things were happening behind bars and I knew we had their backs to the wall.

As I entered the prison, I heard the whispers. "She's here." "She's here." "She's here." And I could see a prisoner pushing a broom around far down a hall behind a set of bars, a prisoner I had no doubt was down there expressly to carry the reports of whatever happened deeper into the institution to the prison population at large who knew perfectly well what I was up to.

When I asked to see Brown, I was sent to an adjacent waiting area where I was soon joined by the Chief of Classification and Parole, a notorious man who walked with a limp and got his kicks sending men to the hole.

"You're not seeing Brown, so you might as well leave," he began.

I assured him that I knew my Constitutional rights and that I was going nowhere until I saw Brown. He assured me in return that he would have me removed from the premises at the close of the business day. And then he did it. He flipped my switch. His smile looked more like a sneer as he said chumily, "Let's face it. I know why you're here and you know why I'm here. So you might as well give it up for today."

"I don't know if you know why I'm here or not," I replied steadily without missing a hitch. I was well into overdrive and came to accomplish something before I left, even though I knew I had come all the way to Leavenworth to be turned away. But he desperately needed a little tweak on the nose and I was just the one to do it. I flashed on all the guys languishing in the darkest belly of that beast because of this man, looked him dead in the eye, and said matter-of-factly, "Actually, I'm here to inform you that you've been tried and found guilty of crimes against the people, for which you will be held accountable at a later date."

"Tried?!?" he squawked. "By what court?"

"The court of the people," I responded, my face dead serious.

And he came unglued. As far as I know, he spent the entire afternoon unglued because not only did his face go blood-red as he rushed out the door sputtering about how I better be gone at 4:00, but when he returned at 4:00 with six of the biggest men I'd ever seen to carry me out of the building, his face was still blood-red, he had spit collected in the corners of his mouth and he was shrieking at what I can only presume was the top of his lungs. The goons deposited me on the concrete steps in front of Leavenworth, for which I was grateful. While being carried out at shoulder height, I had feared they were going to throw me down the stairs -- and there were a lot of them.

The Chief (and yes, I remember his name) stood like a dwarf in the middle of his troops, screaming that I better never come back to Leavenworth again -- or else. I stood back far enough that I was confident at least some of the prisoners would be able to see me, threw my right fist in the air, and belted out in my biggest stage voice, "I'm leaving, but we WILL return and we will KEEP returning until every man in this prison is free."

A couple of days ago, a man who once did time in Leavenworth sent me the following poem written by Carl Sandburg in 1900. It reminded me of the story I just told you, which is one of my favorites, actually. Sandburg had only been dead several years when I walked up the steps at Leavenworth to deliver a message I didn't even know I was carrying. And I never read this poem before I received it the other day. But I'd like to think that old Carl was whispering in my ear that day back in 1973. I mean, Carl Sandburg and I and you and...well...all of us ordinary humans make up a body so strong, we cannot be denied. Now if only we all knew it.


by Carl Sandburg

I AM the people -- the mob -- the crowd -- the mass.

Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?

I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world's food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.

I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then -- I forget.

When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool -- then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: "The People," with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.

The mob -- the crowd -- the mass -- will arrive then.
The Ricardo Levins Morales poster featured above is available from the Northland Poster Collective.


Professor Zero said...

How did you get to the front desk ... I mean, can you just walk in, did you have an appointment, how did that work there and at that time?

Changeseeker said...

I don't know what it's like now, but at that time, "The Big Top," as it was called, was a massive white stone building with a long set of wide concrete steps up the front and a big door leading to a small reception area with an officer on duty. I seem to recall that there were hallways (with offices of some kind, I presume) stretching off this reception area and then there was the waiting room to one side. The main hall leading into the institution was barred. I never got past the front...that day. ;^)

Professor Zero said...

So, you could just walk up the steps and into the small reception area, I gather, no appointment?


The people. Wish I had Sandburg's faith.

Changeseeker said...

Yup. Back then, you could. Don't know about now, though.

As far as faith in The People goes, I don't see the masses as noble necessarily, but I damned sure see us as INFINITELY more powerful than we realize or exercise.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely LOVE Carl Sandburg.

Changeseeker said...

I do, too, now that I've read this poem.