Revolution #278, August 19, 2012
Interviews from the NY BAsics Bus Tour
Nicky: A Life of Abuse and Pain Connects with the Revolution
I first met Nicky in a Harlem park where the BAsics Bus Tour volunteers were having a send-off breakfast on the first day of the "New York and Beyond" leg of the tour. We all chowed down on food and drink donated by people in the projects in Harlem and other parts of the city. A supporter who had helped organize people in the 'hood to support the tour talked movingly about how street corner tables were set and that as people learned about the tour and what it's doing, they gave with all their heart. Now these are people who don't generally have a whole lot of anything extra hanging loosely and pockets that have little more than holes in them. But they gave with their hearts and their brains. They dug deep and gave what they could and went to their neighbors and friends, to their churches, tenants' associations, schools and buildings, to do the same. All told, $450 and a whole lot of food was contributed to the tour in a neighborhood where people often have to choose which meals they need to skip in order to stretch the food out to the end of the month. These were people who were eager to be part of this movement for revolution in whatever way they could.
As the brother continued to tell stories about taking the tour out to the people, I glanced over in Nicky's direction. She was listening hard—sometimes she rubbed the corner of her eye and other times a broad smile lit up her face. I went over to talk with Nicky and she told me that she was a hardcore supporter of the tour. She also told me that she had gotten Bob Avakian's latest book, BAsics, and would love to talk with me about her thoughts on all this. We arranged to talk at her home a couple of days later.
The Bronx is the northernmost borough of New York City and sometimes it can seem like it takes half a day to get to the Bronx from any other part of the city. It's one of those places that all kinds of people know about—some people work in the area and a whole lot of people drive through on the highways that slice across the Bronx as they head out to someplace else. It's renowned as the birthplace of hip-hop and a center for Latin jazz, but truth is, very few people purposely make their way to most of the neighborhoods in the Bronx for fun.
More than 1.4 million people live there—most of them Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other people from the Caribbean, together with African Americans. Over the last couple of decades a number of African immigrants have also moved to the area. The Bronx has the lowest number and percentage of white people living in it of all the New York City boroughs. And while it has a few better-off neighborhoods, it is also has some of the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S. For many decades at the end of the 1900s, the Bronx was a concentration of abandoned buildings. For a while, the urban renewal program in the Bronx was the City pasting pictures of window panes and flower pots over the sheet metal covering the gaping holes that once were windows in buildings that could be seen from the highways. Arson fires took care of the rest.
As I got off the bus and walked towards Nicky's street, I passed by two cop cars parked on opposite sides of the street. The cops eyed me for a while but didn't interfere. But by the time I got to the intersection with Nicky's street, one of the cop cars was crawling up the hill behind me. I only knew this because just as I got to the intersection I heard a loud, gravelly voice yelling out "Poliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice!" Three old men were sitting on a bench just outside of a neighborhood playground. They explained that they were old friends who now saw themselves as "watchers." They explained that they sat on that bench all day, every day, and knew everyone in the 'hood and everything that happens. As we talked, they shouted out birthday greetings to passers-by, asked about health problems and tossed around enough sharp jokes and comments to make your head spin. They said that they watch out for the people and explained that yelling out about the police was just so no one would be taken by surprise. They told me that for many in the neighborhood, just being alive made them a suspect and a target for the police. They also pointed out that in some neighborhoods in the U.S.,their little bench would be inside the park instead of outside of it. They called my attention to a sign that barred any adult not in the company of a child from entering the park. They also pointed out that the listed rules of the park pretty much forbid most things that kids do for fun in a park.
Life of Fear, Abuse, and Pain
I asked the watchers which way to go to reach Nicky's building. They pointed down a street lined with identical light brown or off-white brick walls, often stained with dark smears that come from decades of human sweat, tears, and laughter. A poetic symmetry of dull black metal fire escapes forming cascading Z's down the front walls of all the buildings drew me into the neighborhood. As I made my way into Nicky's building, concerned neighbors took careful note. Nicky greeted me warmly and we began to talk. I asked her about life in the Bronx, and Nicky explained that for her the Bronx was home but that for a very long time that meant a life of fear, abuse, and pain.
"I've lived here my whole life, since about the age of four. And living in the Bronx is a struggle. It's always been a struggle. It's been a struggle for my mother and my father who raised me. Having a job where I still can't have enough to make ends meet. I've been forced to work two jobs and even seven days a week, where I still can't seem to get ahead. I've raised four children right here in this apartment. There has been times where I've had to rely on public assistance with my jobs. I have children that have gone to college. And even today I still struggle with a job. Just seems like no matter what I do I just can't get ahead."
I told Nicky about the watchers and what they said about the police and the youth in the neighborhood. I asked her what it was like to raise three sons in these conditions. "I think, just like for me, fear, always fear. I have two of my sons that, well actually all three of my sons that have been stopped by police, not doing anything. I tried to be a mother that asked for a curfew because I fear what will happen to them out in these streets, you know? My oldest son actually did seven years for something that he didn't do.
"He was accused of two cab driver robberies in 1999—basically no proof at all, but he was sent to prison for seven to 14 years. And at that time my son was into the rap business. He had a $90,000 contract signed with Def Jam Entertainment. And still that didn't matter to these people. They accused him of robbing one cab driver for $100 and a ring and said that he smoked a cigarette in the back of the cab. My son never smoked a cigarette a day in his life. But none of that mattered.
"I have a handicapped son who has been arrested and thrown up against the wall for no reason at all. He'd gone to visit neighbors in the project, maybe at a party. He was arrested for trespassing. The officer said, 'Do you live here?' 'No. I'm just visiting. There's a party here.' They hauled him off to jail. So basically as a mother, I've had to live in fear. I feel lucky to some degree that my children have only just been arrested. Because a lot of other mothers have actually lost their sons' lives. So to that degree I feel sort of blessed. But I still don't know, you know, will that day ever come? That's what it's like living here in the Bronx."
Life Devoted Toward Making Change
It was hard to think of Nicky as living in fear. Although I had only met her a few days earlier, she seemed so determined and really inspired by the BAsics Bus Tour and the movement for revolution it's bringing forward. I asked Nicky what drew her to the tour and the revolution. "I believe it happened maybe about a month ago. I was on 125th Street, in Marcus Garvey Park, and some gentlemen came by with this big poster and they were talking about the bus tour and they asked me if I'd like to write something on the billboard and I did. And I left my number and my email with them. And I would say maybe about a week or so later, I got a call and that person asked me what would you be willing to do, you know, to help us in this revolution, in this movement? And I was like, what do you need me to do?
"Basically, my whole life has been devoted toward making change, you know, for the better of people, even as me, a mom, and also as an educator in the school system. I just think that this world is just so upside down. And people only do better when they know better. I mean it doesn't seem fair to me that one household has food to throw away and another barely has food at all. I don't like the idea of one particular group of people being able to determine what I eat, where I live, what type of education I'll have, you know, and it goes back to the BAsics book, you know, that one particular race of people defines the lives of others, and even before our children are born. You know, they're doomed before they ever get here. And that really bothers me."
I read that quote, BAsics 1:13, out loud to Nicky. "No more generations of our youth, here and all around the world, whose life is over, whose fate has been sealed, who have been condemned to an early death or a life of misery and brutality, whom the system has destined for oppression and oblivion even before they are born. I say no more of that." She thought about it for a minute and then leaned forward on the couch and started to talk again.
"We're Not Going to Take This Any More"
"What I found striking about that quote is that, I think that for so long that we have learned to become comfortable with the abuse that we suffer on a daily basis. And when we say, 'No more,' to me it means that in our hearts and our souls that we're not going to take this anymore. It's not like a smokescreen that we don't realize what's happening to us, and what you're doing to us. And we have to fight back. You know, we just can't just stay laid down and do nothing. And that's why that's really important to me."
Nicky described being part of the "silent march" this June in Manhattan of thousands of people against stop-and-frisk and how powerful she thought it was and how good it felt being there and fighting back. She also talked about how she thought about Trayvon Martin during the march and all of the young Black and Latino men killed by the police in New York and across the country. "Well, to be honest, because it's a typical thing here, in our city, I went, 'Another mother's child.' You know, like, when does it end? There's been so many. I mean, it's almost like I'm losing count. And it touches me because it makes me look at reality and say, 'Will it be my son tomorrow?' I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. But I know that living where I live, that it's a possibility that that day may come for me.
"To me, they always get away with it. I mean, I've not really ever heard of any case where they've, you know, wrongfully killed our children or imprisoned them, or even beat them where they haven't gotten away with it. Like I said, my son did seven years for something that he didn't do. And he came out. He was supposed to be on seven years of probation, but because my son is not the monster they thought he was, they lessened his parole. He was done in three years. He's a musician and he chose to travel the world and to share his talent. And I believe my son went over to Europe and he was scheduled to have a concert there. And as soon as he got off, you know, the plane or whatever, he was detained: never allowed to make it to his concert because when they looked at, you know, his papers and so forth, they went into the computer and they says, 'Oh, we see that you have a record.' So he spent, I believe it was like four days in this detaining center. And then put back on the plane, you know, like, get him out of here.
"And this is a label that many of our young adults as well as old ones, you know—you steal a loaf of bread because you're hungry, because you're starving, you have a family to feed. And they send you to prison for stealing a loaf of bread, a place where they tell you is rehabilitation for you. So, I mean, doesn't that count for something? Then you walk outside those doors and your family hasn't gone away. You still have a family to feed. And you try to do things the right way. You go and you apply for a job. But you've been labeled and you've been stamped, so they'll say, 'No, sorry, we don't have work for you. You're a ex-con.' So what do you do? I mean, where do you turn to? You go to public assistance and you've got five kids to feed but they decide that you only need $300 to feed your family of five or six people. So you get what we have or you starve to death. And that's not the way this system should be."
Nicky and I talked about the quote a little longer. I pointed out that what Nicky was talking about is exactly how the system works and is designed to work. We went back and forth for a little bit parsing out what it means to talk about the system and that the very nature of this capitalist system is what makes the system do what it does to people—it can't do anything else. Nicky thought for a minute and then spoke up. "To me, it's just not human. A system that only cares about wealth and power and is willing to just annihilate human life to get it. To me, that's not a system, that's—I don't even know what to call it. I mean, what happens to everyone else that's in need. I mean, how do you have so much hate for other people that you don't care if they breathe, if they eat, if they die, if they live. I know there's a better way. I know there is."
"An Awesome Book"
"I put a lot of faith into this BAsics book because overall what it tells me is that we have to be united. We have to come together. But a lot of times we don't know what's being done to us. And this is why I think the BAsics Bus Tour is a wonderful thing, because it goes around and it educates people. And it gets them to see what exactly this system is doing.
"I think that it's an awesome book. I think that so far what I've read, and like I was telling you, I'm just so into other things right now in school, but every chance I get, I pick it up. It's knowledgeable. It shows me some of the things that are being done to me that I couldn't maybe see before. Because it's done in a way that it doesn't—the system does things in a way that it like blinds you, you know. You think because if you're on public assistance they pay your rent or, you know, they give you a couple of food stamps, you know, your life is great. But why can't you live where they live? Why do we have to have food stamps? Why don't people just be able to have enough money to go out and to buy food? You understand what I'm saying? So it opens my eyes to some things that I was never able to see before. And I think that's the wonderful thing about this book.
"One piece that really stuck with me is that when you talk about public assistance, you know, everything's on the computer now. And there're millions of people on public assistance and depend on that to survive. That's how they eat. And the system is able to just press a button and say, 'Millions of you will just starve.' I mean, that's not human."
"America Is This Greedy Place"
We talked a little more about BAsics, and I asked Nicky what she thought of the two quotes that were being featured in July—"American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People's Lives," and "Internationalism—The Whole World Comes First." Nicky mentioned that these were the quotes she saw when she first met this movement for revolution and they hit her hard.
"It just seems like America is this greedy place, you know and they go places and they take people's lands, and they put them in situations where they can't do for themselves, you know, and have to be dependent on them. No one person anywhere is more important than anyone else. We're all human beings. And we all deserve to be treated with the same respect, the same dignity, and no one should have more than another. There's no reason why those children over in those third world countries should, you know, you should see their ribs, and they're starving because of mere medications and no food, you know, no family. It's just not right."
I brought up the children in the Congo who are being worked to death in the mines digging out coltan that's used to make cell phones work. Nicky got a horrified look on her face. "Absolutely. They're working sunup to sundown on whatever they're working for. They still don't have adequate food. Isn't it something? Oh my god. It's horrible. And then I think about the ones, you've got nine- and ten-year-old girls in places, they're prostituting their bodies just to eat. You know, I mean, like it's unreal. It's just unreal."
I reached for Nicky's copy of BAsics that was sitting on the coffee table. I wanted to read her BAsics 1:10 about the oppression of women under capitalism. When I picked the book up I could see it was well read, some pages dog-eared and others highlighted in yellow. I stopped when I noticed that she had BAsics 1:22 completely highlighted. "In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about 'democracy'—without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no 'democracy for all': one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality." Nicky said it was one of her favorite quotes. I asked her why.
"I just never really understood why are we separated, you know? Why are you the poor class, the middle class, the wealthy class? Why don't we all have equal? And money seems to take preference over human life. So those who are richer and have more will always be in the predicament to keep us oppressed and keep us from reaching that same level. And, is that democracy? Is that what democracy is supposed to be about? 'Cause I don't think so. I mean like democracy, like we all supposed to be a team, you know, and decide things together. Things are supposed to be divided up equally. I have a say; I have a right; you have a right. But in this country and around the world we don't have a right. We have no rights. There is no democracy. You're not rich, you have no voice."
Born Female in a World of Male Domination
Since Nicky had commented about being horrified when she heard about the sexual abuse and enslavement of young girls around the world, I wanted to read her BAsics 1:10: "Look at all these beautiful children who are female in the world. And in addition to all the other outrages which I have referred to, in terms of children throughout the slums and shantytowns of the Third World, in addition to all the horrors that will be heaped on them—the actual living in garbage and human waste in the hundreds of millions as their fate, laid out before them, yes, even before they are born—there is, on top of this, for those children who are born female, the horror of everything that this will bring simply because they are female in a world of male domination. And this is true not only in the Third World. In 'modern' countries like the U.S. as well, the statistics barely capture it: the millions who will be raped; the millions more who will be routinely demeaned, deceived, degraded, and all too often brutalized by those who are supposed to be their most intimate lovers; the way in which so many women will be shamed, hounded and harassed if they seek to exercise reproductive rights through abortion, or even birth control; the many who will be forced into prostitution and pornography; and all those who—if they do not have that particular fate, and even if they achieve some success in this 'new world' where supposedly there are no barriers for women—will be surrounded on every side, and insulted at every moment, by a society and a culture which degrades women, on the streets, in the schools and workplaces, in the home, on a daily basis and in countless ways."
Nicky's face got very, very serious. She took a deep breath before she started to talk and then laid out a horrible story of abuse she suffered simply because she was a "female in a world of male domination."
"I've had a lot of debate and talk about this because of the way society is implemented, that males are dominant over females. I know that even, you know, in the corporate world like we can't get ahead. A lot of women have degrees, master's degrees, and you know, are suited for these jobs, but just because they're female they don't get them.
"I have been raped as a child, was told you're a woman, you will grow up to be a woman, this is part of life, you know. This is just what men do because they can. I've been in a very, very [bad] domestic situation with my first husband, you know where, just about every day, you know, I had black eyes and so forth, you know. I had to leave and go to shelters to see that me and my kids, you know, would live.
"The thought that men have a right to do this because of their masculine strength is just—it's unbelievable. And this is another thing, you know, that needs to be addressed, because women, you know, we are women, we shouldn't be exploited and raped and beat and just demoralized just because we're women, you know. There are a lot of very strong women, women that raise families on their own, you know that are very productive in society, and they should be treated as such, especially when you have a partner. You understand what I'm saying? And it's true because we're born female it's just, you know, you're a female, you do what I say, and I'm the man and that's it."
I mentioned to Nicky that one of the horrors piled on top of the horror is that so often women who face this kind of abuse are told that it's their fault. Nicky nodded and took the story even further.
"Yes! If you have—'oh, that dress is a little short, if you hadn't have worn that dress, maybe you wouldn't have got raped', you know what I'm saying. I mean we're not even allowed to wear the clothing that we want to, you know, it's always some reason. It's always our fault, like I said my first husband and I, we met when I was 14 and he was 19. I was physically abused and raped by the time that I was 20 and I actually married him—god, don't even ask me why—but then is where I began to learn about the abuse, you know, that women have to take. And you know he would get drunk and today I have a black eye and tomorrow he'd be sorry, you know, and my kids were in turmoil. They were always shaking and nervous, not knowing what's going to happen today, what's going to happen tomorrow, you know, my daughter learned how to dial 911 in the dark by the time she was five years old. I've been beaten with police rods. I've been stabbed. I mean, you name it, it's been done. You know, and this is why I fight as hard as I do, you know, no matter what has happened to me, I realize that I have to continue to fight so that this can change."
"It's Powerful Stuff"
Nicky and I both had to take a minute to pull ourselves back together after talking about this horror. I quietly asked her, in the face of all this terrible oppression she has suffered through, what did it mean for her to find this movement for revolution and its leader, Bob Avakian.
"It meant thank God! Somebody else sees the vision that I have for changing what women go through, for changing the educational system so that everything is equal when it comes to education, changing that some countries are starving and some that are not. Just making changes to better human life period. And that's how I felt. I've had this vision my whole life. There's really people out here that share my vision. And that's why it was like a godsend. Wow, God sent these people to me, like, see, somebody else thinks what you think, you know, and that's why I'm just so happy to contribute, to do whatever I can to make this movement a success."
Nicky mentioned that she hadn't heard of Bob Avakian before she met this movement but now that she has she has some strong opinions. "I've never met this man. I've just started reading his book. But I think that he is a leader. You know, a leader is a person that has a vision and is so genuine in that vision that they're allowed to get other people to share that vision and to become a part of it. And in my opinion, he's a leader in a positive manner, you know. People say, oh, you know, communist or whatever. Listen, this man is teaching me things that I never knew before and is showing me a way to change the things that I feel that need to be changed, which is this whole world, by the way, you know. It's powerful stuff."
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