This morning I received another letter from Denis Martinez, the Sing Sing inmate I met last summer with whom I’ll be corresponding until his release (and probable deportation) this coming August.
Denis and I agreed some time back that we would publish a kind of running diary of his experiences in prison. Most particularly, he’ll describe the inmates’ daily watching-the-news ritual, a part of the day that gives birth to some wild conversations. In Denis’s wing at Sing Sing, a special unit for inmates who’ve excelled in school or other areas, he holds a particular place in the hierarchy. He’s the guy who owns a current Almanac, which often makes him the arbiter of factual disputes that break out on the wing. There’s no Google in the cell block.
In my last letter to him, I asked Denis to write about the inmates’ response to the Charlie Hebdo story. He wrote back:
You think emotions are high out there over the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris? Well, I wish you were here to see and hear the clamor in the gallery.
You’re probably going to be puzzled by this, but there’s one group of guys who have unanimously and vocally expressed support for Charlie Hebdo‘s decision to publish the prophet cartoons: Muslim prisoners. As you know, Muslims in Sing Sing – and every prison in New York, for that matter – outnumber any group.
In fact, they’re stronger than the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Trintarios and any other gang combined. So when they have an opinion about something, unless the prinsoner is someone who’s a close friend, everybody else treads carefully to avoid World War III.
Loudmouth Ali was the first in the gallery to notice the breaking news and condemn the attackers. He’s one of the oldest, but biggest Muslims in our area. His usually pathetic commentary tends not to fit the wisdom we would expect from someone over 50, but that Wednesday he was making sense.
I was in my cell, around the time ABC News comes on at noon, when I heard him crying out – and by crying out, I mean loudest-mouth-East-of-the-Hudson crying out.
“Stupid motherfuckers! They shootin’ unarmed dudes for some cartoon. That’s some coward shit.”
“You know what else is some ‘coward shit’?” interrupted Ricky. “When someone sends remote control planes to the other side of the world to drop bombs on ‘potential’ terrorists without a trial.”
Ricky is a muscle-bound, thirtysomething, dreadlocked Rastafarian man with a passion for ranting about geopolitics. He stood right in front of the TV, essentially replacing the ABC anchor. “Not only did those Haji motherfuckers warn them Paris dudes about the Mohamed cartoons years ago, but they went there personally and looked them in the face before the pushed their wigs back.”
“Still ain’t right,” countered Ali. “Muslims ain’t supposed to draw the prophet, but they can’t force a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim land to live by shari’a law.”
Ricky stepped aside, letting everyone see the news, but he kept arguing.
“I’m not saying that what they did wasn’t terrible. What pisses me off is how this immediately gets front-page treatment in the news, and will continue to do so for weeks to come while you got Boko Haram wiping out whole villages in Africa, and the news mentions it only in passing.”
RICKY WAS RIGHT; Charlie Hebdo was still the top news story a week later. All the news outlets gave detailed accounts of the whole incident, and most of the other Western powers expressed their support to the French. We even learned how Israel got involved, news that provoked its own response.
“Aha!” Ricky said, as if he’d discovered the cure for AIDS. “Bibi’s in France! No wonder the media is all over this. They killed four Jews in that Kosher deli. Y’all be thinking I’m crazy when I tell you, Zionists control the media.”
Even though he gets a kick from exaggerating things, Ricky’s diatribe still made me think about how the media covers (or doesn’t cover) disenfranchised groups, and how this may be a catalyst for the anger they feel at not being taken seriously. At a local level, you might think that only young (hot) white women get kidnapped, since it seems to be the only demographic the media worries about when they’re in distress.
You never hear about the types of crooks who actually do real damage to the economy, because the press is too busy covering the young, illiterate black guy who stole some Nikes. Even the language they use to describe crime is different. Older, educated, WASPy, white-collar bankers don’t steal billions of dollars. They “misappropriate” or at worst “embezzle” funds. And they never come to prison. In 10 years in Sing Sing, I’ve never seen one.
So it’s sort of a chickens-coming-home-to-roost situation. Do you really expect that centuries of colonization, imperialism and subjugation of the world by a small, powerful elite wasn’t going to create an angry global caste with (literally) nothing to lose? How much exploitation can someone take before he explodes?
My take: Charlie Hebdo was unfortunately at the receiving end of ire that it didn’t necessarily create when it drew cartoons of an Arab who lived fourteen hundred years ago; this was only an excuse. It’s no different from a child who kicks her abusive father’s cat because she can’t lash out directly at him. It’s the classic Freudian defense mechanism.
Those who are marginalized – or perceive themselves to be – can’t attack the machinery directly. So who protects the imagined cogs like Charlie Hebdo that are at at the front lines?
If you find a solution, let me know…
Good to hear from you, and thanks for the prompt reply. Ali and Musa were two of the first people I thought of when I heard about Charlie Hebdo. I figured there had to be some heated discussions up there. . .
You told me before about how Muslims were the dominant group in all of the prisons in this state – I’d love to hear more sometime about that, why that is, whether it’s changed over the years at all (you’ve been inside for most of the War on Terror era!), etc. But that can be another subject for another day.
In your letters you often talk about the “machinery,” imperialism, colonization, exploitation, etc. Can you talk some more about that? I’ve never been much for political theory of any kind – I see the world as being more inherently absurd than exploitative, but then again, I’m not in prison, either. But you mention it enough, just thought I’d ask what you mean by it.
As for what’s going on out here, this actually might be a good time to revisit the football conversation. [Eds. Note: Denis hates football]. This week in 2015 will forever be known by historians as the moment when the leading news story in America involved a couple of whiffs of air from a football. Seriously, “Deflategate” was the top story on multiple network news broadcasts yesterday. I know there are a lot of Giants and Jets fans up there, so I’m sure the talk must have been pretty hilarious. Would love to hear your/their take on it.
Or whatever else is the hot topic of the moment, please just let me know. I’m currently being roasted by Conservative America (the Internet calls it “‘Murica” these days) for writing a negative review of the new Clint Eastwood movie American Sniper, a tearjerker about. . .well, I’ll just leave it at that, this is your column, not mine. But if there’s talk about that movie, or any other subject you find interesting, just drop me a line.
I’ll try to figure out a way for you to communicate with readers also. Until then, hang in there and thanks for the letter – yours sincerely,