Thoughts, Musings and Stories

#ThrowbackThursday: Angels With Dirty Faces Review

I originally wrote this review right after reading Angels With Dirty Faces a couple of years ago. Hopefully my review encourages you to check this book out if you haven't read it yet. 

Angels With Dirty Faces by Walidah Imarisha is a phenomenal book. I appreciate how she intertwines her personal history, particularly with experiencing sexual violence, and the stories of her chosen adopted brother Kakamia and Mac, a former member of a notorious NYC Irish gang, whom she met through Kakamia, to force us to question what is true justice, healing and accountability. Like the majority of rape and sexual assault survivors, Walidah did not report her rape to the police, instead, she attempted to utilize community-based restorative justice methods, to hold her partner accountable for the harm he caused her, and to facilitate her own healing. I really appreciate and admire how Walidah shows the messiness of implementing restorative and transformative justice practices, and how processes are not always perfect, but we have to keep trying and make genuine efforts improve. Her story, combined with Kakamia and Mac’s, both of whom were imprisoned for violent crimes, forces us to see the humanity in all people, even those who do great harm to others.

Imprisoning people does not address the systems that structure all of our lives and that gives too many people nothing but bad and worse decisions to choose from. The violence and harm does not stop when you imprison someone; it can’t, because prisons are inherently violent themselves; they are a product of the society we live in, so of course they will be violent too. As Walidah states, “prisons are not about safety, but about control and containment of potentially rebellious populations.” It’s politically fashionable to lament about the number of people held in U.S. jails and prisons, feign shock at the racial disparities that exist, and even to advocate for the release of people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. But that is not enough to undo and reverse the damage of decades of hyper-incarceration of mostly Black and Brown poor people. As others have so eloquently stated, even if all people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses are released from jails and prisons, the U.S. will still have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers, coercive “treatment” or “residential” centers, and any other institution that imprisons people, must be abolished and replaced with community-based transformative justice systems.

As the stories of Kakamia and Mac illustrate, people who are incarcerated each have their own unique story and history with how society’s systems have worked or not worked within their lives; but there are also similarities between their stories, even though they grew up in different eras. While Kakamia grew up in Crown Heights Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s and Mac in 1960s Hell’s Kitchen, the same underlying institutional structures impacted their lives, including unemployment, disinvestment, and violence. Government policies led to their communities being a kind of prison, preparing them to be incarcerated in actual prisons. Both Kakamia and Mac participated in harming other people’s lives, even ending lives. How do we hold them, and others who seriously harm our communities, accountable, outside of a punishment and retribution model that reproduces the same violence? How do we center the healing of people and communities?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, but we have to continue having these hard, painful, but necessary conversations, implement transformative justice models of accountability, and if one way doesn’t work, keep trying.