The Chance to Make a Difference

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Editor’s Note: In March 2010, we began posting the work of Enceno Macy, an inmate in a U.S. prison. Enceno’s articles are sent handwritten, then typed and edited by a trusted editor. Comments typed into the response area will be sent directly to Enceno. Thanks for reading and for the warm response he’s received each time. –efc & ajp

by Enceno Macy

With no access allowed to computers or internet, prisoners in this state receive news only via major networks on a few prison-controlled tv channels. We therefore knew little or nothing of the Occupy Wall Street actions until police brutality drew reluctant media coverage. Quietly, many of us cheered.

Sign at Occupy Maine. Photo by Amanda Painter.

Prisoners are after all the most disenfranchised and voiceless segment of the 99%. Our very survival is totally at the mercy of an industry that makes obscene profits, grossly overcharging a literally captive market for out-dated, condemned food products, factory-reject clothing, expired medicines, and defective, unsalable merchandise.

The Occupation has now faded from corporate news, but for a while there I dared to hope they would persist and maybe even score some victories against our corporate masters. I want to cry out now to each of them not to give up, not to blow this chance to make a difference. I was so young I blew my own chance without even knowing I had one, and trying to regain it has been a long, hard journey.

The young mind, caught up in self, focuses mostly on the immediate future and the common daily occurrences that directly affect a youth’s current situation. Young people therefore often fail to comprehend the world as a whole. Other countries might as well be other planets, politics and global relations are grown-ups’ business, and things appear generally to be everlasting. Caring, compassion and empathy are often limited to the things and people closest and most familiar to us at the time: our family, friends, possessions and pets.

Some kids may grow up more worldly, but the above is what I knew and was at 15 years old: simple and self-absorbed. I came to prison then – back when cell phones were rare and primitive and Palm Pilot was the only hand-held computer. When I came to jail, Clinton was considered the closest thing to a minority president that we would get. Global warming and peak oil had not become common terms or concerns. Terrorism wasn’t being used to justify conflicts and military campaigns that depleted our debt surplus and contributed to a crashing economy. Our planet wasn’t being murdered as blatantly with countless pollutants in our air and water (or to be honest, I hadn’t noticed).

Prison does different things to different people. For some it is a chance to regroup and prepare to try harder to get away with the things that put them in their cage to begin with. Others try to change, try to look at themselves and correct their flaws. Maybe they will seek the help of a church or A.A., or they attempt to exercise will power that they’ve never had. Some with long sentences end up trying to improve their education to advance their character, knowledge and understanding. Having gone through only my ninth grade year (and failing terribly) at the time I fell, it was imperative that I take the path of improvement. I didn’t have a curriculum, only my mom’s encouragement and support from a few family friends. Often my interest would fade in and out, and I had no specific subject I wanted to learn about.

To see my journey clearly, I need to be honest and share my progression and the reasoning behind it. Influenced by my surroundings (see my race article from a year ago), I first got into radical black literature. Growing up on the wrong side of the law, I equated the police and all authority as my enemy, a very basic association with why my life was so hard. The pro-black books I picked up referenced the police under a blanket that included politicians and the government as a whole. This is where my adolescent anger turned, against “The Man,” or “Them.”

That part of my education was generally negative. I think of it now as an old way of thinking, but what it did was open me up to the idea of oppression. From there my perception widened, and I saw that many different races and cultures fall into the category of the oppressed. For a couple of years, I studied many aspects of history and saw how governments always find someone to keep a foot on. I looked at all the attempts to change that had been made, and I saw the changes that were made were mostly for appearances and that things stayed fundamentally the same under the surface: there were always the haves and the have-nots.

I was disgusted with people for accepting this, for believing what their government told them, and for how they treated each other. I saw society as cold, selfish, and unfair. It seemed to me that social reforms and public outcry did nothing to address the true reasons why things were the way they were. I felt America needed a wake-up call – to be reminded of the basics and be brought back to their roots as humans, to be reminded of what it means to need each other. I thought the only true way things could be fixed was by breaking them. I was going to cause a revolution. I was going to build a nuclear bomb.

This began my next phase. I began to research how to build this bomb. My ambition was short-lived, as I discovered how hard it is to get uranium or plutonium. But I uncovered something else that totally changed my way of thought and the direction of my path. Understanding how a nuclear reaction worked introduced me to physics and, in turn, to theoretical physics. It opened my eyes to how big the universe is and how small my various concerns are within it. Studying physics made me think of things below the surface and causes of actions that may be subtle or indirect. I began to relate this to human nature, and to think about the circumstances that led people to think and act the way they do.

What happened was that I discovered empathy. I no longer blamed people themselves for what they did and thought, but instead looked to things like upbringing, education and lack of diverse experiences as the cause. I learned that a person may treat another a certain way based on preconceptions of the other person’s style, culture or race. For example, I ran into a kid early in my sentence who had been taught by his community that black people had special muscles, bones, and blood vessels that whites didn’t have; that’s what made him dislike and fear minorities and gave him a racist outlook. Could I blame him or hate him for what he had been taught?

It was hard to see people in this new light. I hadn’t usually felt much sorrow for anything except myself before, but now I felt it for all the people who couldn’t fend for themselves – for babies born into such a deceptive and cruel world, for victims of bullying, for kids brain-washed to believe racist or sexist or political lies. Just when I was having this revelation, 9-11 happened, and this country went to bully a less organized, less advanced country out of their oil and way of life. To me, democracy may not have been the worst form of government, but even if it were the best, forcing it onto a thousands-of-years-old culture without its consent was wrong. To me, it was the same as a father (not unlike the one I’d had) beating his child to correct a flaw and causing far more damage than good.

Meanwhile, all around me I saw people every day treat each other with the lowest level of regard and respect over the smallest issues. The mentality in here is to bring others down to build yourself up, and what I saw going on in the world was a horrifying mirror of what goes on in prison. Although I don’t agree with the murders and retain my own doubts about the truth behind 9-11, I look at the official story and ask anyone to think what they might do if they watched someone bully others over and over as the U.S. has done. Would you not wonder when your time will come? Would you not try to appear stronger and more aggressive than you are in order to put off the bully? Each person may differ greatly in opinions about it, but at that time I felt empathy for the alleged attackers’ desperation. I had to be much the same as they, acting stronger than I was so as not to fall victim to the gangs and predators that are the top of the food chain in here.

People in prison have plenty of time to think. Fundamentally, all we are doing is waiting – waiting to get out and begin to resume a life, or waiting to die. This is not living. The only part you might consider living is the mind, but for many lost souls, not only is their mind not engaged, it may already be dead. I kept mine alive by reading and learning, tried to keep up on headlines and the alternative versions of events that my mom would send me from the Internet. While I have been waiting, my mind has brooded on how things could change.

Hope for change is not enough. Too often hope is mistakenly used as a crutch by people who do not know what to do – not an excuse, but an unconscious substitute for taking things into their own hands. By no means do I refer to someone ill hoping to live or someone with a life sentence hoping to get out. No, I mean a voter who votes for an asshole and hopes he will change things for the better. Then when the elected party fails to deliver on his promises, the voter keeps on hoping instead of demanding changes or taking assertive action. That isn’t hope, it’s delusion, the kind of delusion that feeds chronic gamblers.

I am thirty years old and have never been allowed to vote. Maybe because it’s forbidden I have a warped view of what voting is: either a cruel joke or something people ought to take a lot more seriously. Either way, I have serious doubts about the process, because necessary changes won’t be made through elections, which are too easily rigged by money. So when they ask, I encourage people to find out what they can do and then go and do it. Don’t wait for rigged elections or for others to lead you. Complaining of an injustice will do nothing to solve it or make it right: channel your anger or grief into doing what you can do, without dwelling on what you can’t. Otherwise, you may just be contributing to the problem.

Outside the wire, many people take for granted the resources made available to them every day. They fill their cars with gas and complain about its prices, but never think of how many people died in order to power their vehicles. They get frustrated that wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes devastate their property and disrupt their lives, but reject the concept of global warming. Whether they want to believe the idea or not, what happened to the old saying, ‘Better safe than sorry?’ Wouldn’t it be reasonable to avoid non-biodegradable products, shrink their carbon footprint, and use less fossil fuel and more recycled materials rather than contribute to the possibility that climate change is real?

I have sat or lain awake many nights pondering how detached humans are from their connection to the Earth. The slumbering breath of my cellmate is a background of white noise to visions of hunger and illness and suffering all over the world. As a youth I did not see my connection to the suffering. I used to get down on myself for not being able to make any difference and for not having the discipline to do the few things I could do to help. But no one is perfect, as we all know. I came to understand that what I was capable of doing and what I could afford to do were two different things, and that I have to act within the confines of my situation. I am not rich or free. I have little control over what items I can recycle. I can not go door to door with petitions advocating change. For other reasons, you also may not be able to afford the time or resources, either, but doing what is possible, however small, may help you sleep better at night – maybe not totally at peace, but at least with a shred of satisfaction.

To keep a goal of change always in mind, a person has to truly care about an issue or cause. Initial rage may die out – a product of the moment. Think of something like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Do you remember how sad you felt? Or how much you hoped FEMA would be able to help? Do you still care as much as you did at first? If so, there are still plenty of victims in need of assistance. If you truly care and want to help, you might spend part of your next vacation helping build and repair houses in New Orleans. Just because those people’s sufferings are no longer in the news doesn’t mean they stopped existing or stopped needing what we can do.

That’s just one example, illustrating how important it is to remember what caused us to feel concerned and want to take action – and to stick to it even after the issue fades from the news. There is blessing not only in being helped but in being able and willing to provide that help. You are lucky if you have the chance to make a difference, because some of us don’t have that opportunity.

My many progressions and transformations, too numerous to mention, came from educating myself. Once I understood my connection to the things I saw wrong in the world, I looked for changes I could make to help. Efficient energy use is something I now think about daily, and the disaster of the tsunami in Sri Lanka inspired me deeply to want to be trained in search and rescue operations. I wanted so badly to go over there and save lives, even if it was just filling sand bags. Today it’s hard for anyone to help, as the economy shrinks, the jobless rate is higher than any time since the Great Depression, and people are losing their homes right and left. I know even more things will hinder me in the uphill battle I face with my impending release because so many obstacles face ex-cons:

Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion. Through the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement, millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons … and then are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

I am far from the kid who wanted to build a bomb, and though I have a voice from in here, I cannot make the difference that I want to, which is sad and frustrating at this point. My goal now is to equip myself with the knowledge and strength to be able to fight for a cause when the time comes. What would happen, I wonder, if just one relative or friend of every prisoner and ex-con in the U.S. got together in an Occupy event? That would be more than 2.2 million people – enough to have an impact, maybe?

When that seems impossible, I tell myself over and over again what I wish I could tell the Occupiers: Whatever differences you try to make, there will be those who oppose you and tell you your goals are impossible. Don’t let them stop you no matter how powerful they are or how futile it may seem. Giving up makes all your efforts – and others’ – worthless. If you’re passionate enough and determined enough, you may find the satisfaction and peace I mentioned earlier. Prison not only confines, it also limits my choices, so the differences I can make are few. But thanks to Planet Waves, I do have a voice, and maybe convincing others who can make a difference is the best action we can take. In some cases it takes only a single voice to change everything.

The world is not ours, we are borrowing it from future generations. The only meaningful pursuit is to find something outside of ourselves to care about: to love the world and everything in it as the gift that it is.

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6 Responses to The Chance to Make a Difference

  1. mystes mystes says:

    “There is blessing not only in being helped but in being able and willing to provide that help. ”

    Thanks, Enceno, for speaking so clearly to this privilege. You’re a jewel.

    M

  2. Amanda Painter Amanda Painter says:

    Enceno’s other editor (the person who works with his drafts before i put them on the blog) just sent along this email from an acquaintance of theirs:

    This is an amazing article from Enceno, and it is so pertinent to what I am doing right now. I am very involved in Occupy Oakland and this is something I am currently getting involved in organizing — an action about prisoners. Here is the link. I thought you might find it interesting.

    http://occupy4prisoners.org/

    I plan to share Enceno’s article with my co-organizers and I will tweet it as well.

    End the new Jim Crow!

  3. Rachel Victoria says:

    Dear Encino. I so appreciate hearing your story. Your path has been an amazing one, and your courage to move beyond fear towards compassion is deeply compelling and inspiring.

    Your words of encouragement to those of us on the front lines of Occupy are a welcome gift. Sometimes I feel discouraged, but hearing your story coming from inside those walls reminds me of why I am doing this.

    I want you to know that Occupy Oakland has recently called for a National Day of Action in support of prisoners on Feb 20, 2012. Here is the link to the website. We are just beginning to organize it, but there is a huge swell of support.

    http://occupy4prisoners.org/

    I look forward to your liberation from prison, and to liberation from oppression for us all. Together we can make a difference. We already have.

    Rachel

  4. Len Wallick Len Wallick says:

    Enceno,
    Thank you for another lucid and eloquent installment of your journey. Been thinking about you in recent weeks. It is good to know of your impending release. Speaking for myself, you have made a difference. Reading your words has made a difference in my life. Among those differences is the appreciation of opportunities that you speak of. May you soon be outside the wire and availed of the increased opportunities that you have worked so hard to prepare yourself for.

  5. Lea Burning River says:

    I don’t feel adequate with words to express my heartfelt appreciation for the choices you have made and the transformations in your thinking that have made you the man you are today. So my best response to your post, Enceno, is my suggestion just now under another PW post that an action be taken by PW in solidarity with Wikipedia and other internet communities to stand against corporate take-over of the freedom of speech that we enjoy on the internet by blacking out for 24 hours on the 18th (tomorrow) with them. May your spirit continue to plant seeds in many spirits.

  6. Lizzy Huffy says:

    Great to see you back here dear Enceno! It’s been a while… You really are one helluva guy. As I read your piece I was reminded of the words “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”, from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I’m still waiting for you to write that book…!

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