Revolution #233, May 22, 2011
On the streets of Harlem
BAsics on my mind
I arrived in New York City late on a Friday night and shortly before midnight I found myself sitting in the upper part of the 125th Street A train station waiting for a friend to meet me. It was cool for early April and periodic rain added to the edge of the night. As I waited I noticed a stream of people—Black, Latino and even some white people, mostly old—enter the station and head to a small area in the back near sanitation closets and sinks. They were homeless and tired. They sought shelter in a spot of light that was a mixed blessing—while it gave them some protection from the violence of the street, it also lit them up for marauding police. In the middle of all this were gentle moments that carried them through the night—falling asleep in the embrace of a friend, a head resting on a friend's shoulder, a hand tucking the edges of a blanket in to capture some heat. An old man caught me watching and waved.
The next morning I met with some revolutionaries out on the corner of 125th & Amsterdam Avenue. They had set up a table in a plaza that was surrounded on three sides by highrise projects. The table was filled with copies of Bob Avakian's new book BAsics. Posters and flyers for the April 11 concert, On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World, were everywhere. People passing by stopped and lingered at the table, picked up the book and began to read. Some just nodded their head or let loose with a quiet "that's right" or "tell the truth." Others were deep in conversation about one or another quote. Agitators on bullhorns read quotes from BAsics and urged people to pick it up. A few quotes were written on sheets of butcher paper and hung up on a fence. People would stop and read the quotes and talk—sometimes with their friends, sometimes with the revolutionaries. A couple of people left their thoughts on a blank poster hanging in between the quotes. One read, "The Black youth are looked at negative, like he said, before they are born. It's hard. They need hope—a mother in the projects." Another from a young woman, a poet from Seattle, ended her comments with this question, "So what's it mean to be a bird, if it can't move its wings? To be human meant to live, but it also meant to die. So what's it mean to be a bird if it can't even fly?"
I was talking to a young Black man who grew up in the projects and still lived there. He bought a copy of BAsics after reading the quotes on the wall. He tutored grade school kids in the neighborhood and said that it all made him understand things like racism and what America is all about. He told me how his guts churned every day, all day because of what he sees, especially how discrimination is so systematically mapped out and how even the welfare of innocent children is ruled by profit. "And then it's evident that racism does exist, because look at the schools that you have in the suburbs compared to the schools right up the street. And it's like it's all being done, it's all mapped out. Everything is area. Everything is placement: where the money is, where the people are, where the people with the money are. You place the most worthless things in the place where there's the least money. Because you expect to scrape up small dollars."
The brother yelled out to a friend across the street and turned and told me how he used to think 125th Street was the world—everything was here, fried chicken joints, the Studio Museum of Harlem, jazz-inspired poetry readings in the back room of the Baby Grand bar and, of course, the Apollo Theater. He talked about how you could hear the news from all kinds of street corner agitators. He knew that world and loved it but now things seemed different. As he talked, an old man I recognized from the night before in the subway station hobbled past us. His feet were purple and swollen to the size of eggplants. He walked on the sides of his feet and each painful step was a precarious balancing act. He stopped and listened to the agitator talk about celebrating revolution and the vision of a new world. The young brother helped the old man cross the street. When he returned he began to talk: "I walk around the world, basically, I'm alone, and I have to protect myself. If I can, if I have the time and I believe someone else is being violated, I will protect someone else. Definitely everybody faces some type of racism, just as there might be a white gentleman that dislikes an Asian, there's an Asian that doesn't like Brazilians. That's the main problem with human beings. They always try to point out the differences. It's easier to point out. Even our parents, they're probably not doing it purposefully, the families at home."
He looked at the first quote in BAsics—"There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth." He shut the book and said he had to head down the block to meet someone. We walked and talked for a while. I asked him if he ever thought about getting out of this system. "I think about leaving this country every day. I'm not a proud American. I just live in America. As far as being an American goes, I was born here. So I'm stamped an American. I have a Social Security number, and that's it. As far as being an American goes, as far as the brave, and the Star-Spangled Banner, that's just a bunch of myths. Just like these pamphlets say, Jim Crow. You've got people who have plans to do other things. Just as Hitler came up with the Holocaust, they have something for everybody. Everybody has a plan for everybody else that has a difference. You've stole, raped and killed, if you're part of America, and they proud of that. I'm not proud of that."
I asked if he ever thought about revolution to overturn this society and build a new world. He stopped dead in his tracks and when he spoke his voice was excited. "Definitely! Every day! I'm a revolutionary soldier myself. When the officer asks me for my ID, I say, 'Wait, what's the problem? First off, you don't need to know who I am. I don't need to know who you are. What's the problem? Oh, you need my ID? I need your badge number.' 'Oh, what do you need my badge number for?' 'You might do something stupid just like I might do something stupid.'
"New York City is the scariest city in the world. Not as far as a bunch of murderers and rapists running around, but as far as these young women and young men walking around the street thinking someone's out to get them. But you can't blame them for that mentality because what do you see every day in the paper? Three girls raped by eight policemen in the police station. A man being dead from being left in the back of a police cruiser. Things like this make you scared. Like I said earlier, you can't be a proud American if you know the people, the government, the people that supposed to be protecting you, are hurting you.
"The government only lets you to hear what they allow you to hear, and see what they want you to see. Now unless you do what I'm doing. I'm actually on the street. I see these things happening every day. I see people getting harassed by the police. I see people getting beat up. I see people shot and stabbed, killed. This happens for real. This is not just movie stuff. This is really actual things, and a lot of people don't believe it. And a lot of time I think that society try to take it and make it a joke, make it seem not so serious. Which is horrible because these are real things that are really going on."
We got to the corner and started to say good-bye. I stopped and asked him what he thinks about the fact that Bob Avakian and the Revolutionary Communist Party are building a movement for revolution. He smiled and finished off with a quick sentence, "I think that's great. I think everybody needs to wake up. If anything they should create a calling, and those that hear it, stand up."
M. stood and quietly read a poster with a quote from BAsics, "The role of the police is not to serve and protect the people. It is to serve and protect the system that rules over the people. To enforce the relations of exploitation and oppression, the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation into which the system has cast people and is determined to keep people in. The law and order the police are about, with all of their brutality and murder, is the law and order that enforces all this oppression and madness."
A friend introduced us and mentioned that the sister lived in the projects. I asked her what she thought of the quote she had just read. "The thing that attracted me to the revolution is I have teenage sons. I have a 21-year-old son and I have an 18-year-old son. My sons attracted me to the revolution. I have two teenage sons and that's what attracted me to the revolution. I was out here and I saw where they came to the aid of a teenage boy, when they out here when the cops were harassing him. They were harassing him, and they jumped on the boy for no reason as well. And the revolution came in and you know, it was like, 'It's wrong. It's not supposed to happen.' And that attracted me to them because I have sons out in the street also. And they have come to my aid when they're come to my two sons' also. My son was arrested—somebody attacked my son. We actually saw the attack. And the police arrested my son. And the revolution went with me to the precinct for them to release my son. I've seen them—they have been there when I seen people get abused, and they've been there.
"So that's what really attracted me to them. And we have to help our children. See, one of the problems now that's going on in America is, I no longer have to worry about the person in the street taking my kids from me, I have to worry about the system and the police officers taking my kids from me because that's what they're designed to do now. They take our kids as well. And we have no control any more. Therefore, I try to participate as much as I can in the revolution because I feel that there has to be a change! We are losing our children. We are losing our children. Every day I see them go farther and farther away from us. And the system is doing nothing to help us save our children. They're taking our kids from us. And we have to do everything in our power to help save our own children. That's basically my concern."
As we talked, a young man walked past us pretty quickly. His pants were sagging low and the sister yelled out after him, "Did you forget your belt or don't you know what one is?" Without missing a step the young brother lifted his shirt to show a loosely hooked and strategically placed belt. The woman laughed and the young brother waved and kept walking. I must have looked like I was taking it all a little too serious so she laughed and told me that was one of her sons and it's a running gag they have going between themselves. She turned again to talking about the revolution. I asked her if she was familiar with Bob Avakian. "Yes I have. I'm still learning about things. Right now I just bought his book. I just started reading the book the other day. I've read a couple of quotes in the book, and I think it's something to look forward to. It's something to look forward to, it's something to hold on to. Because whenever you have a person that's willing to help you make a change, you have to look at what this person is offering you. Because we can't keep going on the way we are."
She looked at the flyer for the April 11 event and I asked if she was planning to attend. We talked a little about how things could change with this event, even helping people to see a vision of a new world, and feel what it would be like for a little bit of time. She looked at the flyer again and started to talk. "Well, I don't know. I've never been to any other events before. This is going to be my first time. But I think it's a good thing. You have to start getting people to participate, to come out and try to make a change. Right. You tell people, I want to offer you this. You have to show them. There are some people that have to see. And once they see, and see how many people are participating, and how many people really are involved, that gives you a sense of going on yourself."
We started talking about the lies the system tells us and one of the biggest being that this is the best of all possible worlds. The sister kicked in right away. "I totally agree. Because you see, right now, I'm at the point where I'm a mother that's known to the 26th Precinct. This is the area I swim in. I have, like I said, two teenage sons. I am a firm believer in, I'm going to do everything in my power to save my sons from the system. Because I have to. I'm a mother. And I believe that change can be made, and it has to be made. It has to be made.
"A change has to be made. Every time I see something wrong happen, it makes me even more of a firm believer in Bob Avakian and what he's saying. I always have a habit of running into the wrong things. I watched them pull five young boys over at Columbia University, about a month ago. People said they shouldn't be walking through the school. Because, why was that? There's a group of white boys walking through the school. There's a group of Asian boys walking through the school. Why did these ones necessarily have to be the ones doing the wrong thing? Then I watched the police. I came downstairs. I decided to walk down the stairs. Pulled three young men into the staircase and made them drop their pants. The police is the criminal! I mean, who treats people like that? And was all up inside their genitals. You can't treat people like that. That's inhuman. And they've done it more than once. I've seen them do it more than once. I seen them do it to a kid on the bus. Made him drop his pants right on the bus. The police said, 'I know you got the crack down inside your drawers. If you don't drop them we'll take them off you.' Who treats people like that? You don't treat people like that. Then you wonder why our kids act the way they act. But I watched that, and they actually had these young men drop their pants. I couldn't believe it."
Before we parted she opened up BAsics again, re-read the quote and said, "You can't get deeper than that. Because you just don't bully people like that. When I see that on the bus. And then my first thought was, who am I going to tell, because these are the police. The police are the criminals now. Who am I going to tell? You have nobody to go to. There's nobody to go to to say, 'Help me.' "
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.